Monday, July 10, 2017

Small Marks on a Page

Punctuation: just small marks on a page, that's all.  But it's quite astonishing what emotions it can provoke.

What is known in Britain as 'the greengrocer's apostrophe'  is a particular bugbear.  No one seems to know why it's such a temptation to advertise 'juicy apple's, pear's and plum's' but you can spot a few in every market with hand-lettered signs and it has spread on to shop fronts too now - 'Belle's Hair and Nail's', 'Acme Taxi's'  People have been known to foam at the mouth on seeing one.

A small town in Britain hit the news recently because of the Phantom Punctuator, who felt so passionately about it that he went round secretly in the dead of night with a ladder and a pot of paint, removing inappropriate apostrophes and, where necessary, putting in appropriate ones.  Remarkably, none of the 'victims' seemed to mind; indeed, several touchingly said they were very grateful because they'd never understood why an apostrophe needed to be there at all.

Then there's the semi-colon (see what I did there?) .  I like them because I think they give balance to a sentence. I hate reading books that have a lot of short sentences.  Like this.  I feel as if I'm running along.  And then I stumble.  And fall flat on my nose.

Lots of people don't think that way so you can have a really good argument about it.  And once you've stopped wrestling on the floor you can go on to debate the use of the colon.

Every so often I read a book where the author has taken against inverted commas, whether single or double.  True enough, you can usually tell when someone is meant to be speaking but sometimes it takes a moment or two just to check, a moment or two that breaks the story's thread.

It's the punctuation that determines the pace of the writing.  But it should be like the perfect butler - Carson at Downton Abbey, say, or P G Wodehouse's Vosper - who makes things happen so unobtrusively that no one notices he is there at all.

Writing style, of course, has its fashions.  Queen Victoria never used a comma where several dashes would do, but if I'd done that in writing my weekly composition at school I'd have had red marks all over it.  Now, though, dashes to mark parenthesis are having their moment in the sun, elbowing out the common comma.

Exclamation marks, on the other hand, seem now to be frowned on as rather gauche, like raising your voice and shouting at your reader, even though  Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children had an average of six per page!  (I think that deserved one.)

A little while ago there was an impassioned debate in the CWA about whether it should be the Crime Writers' Association as the purists would have it, or the Crime Writers Association, which admittedly looks snappier on a letterhead.  It raised strong feelings in some but to tell you the truth, I can't remember what we decided.  So perhaps I'm not as passionate about punctuation as I ought to be.

Get me on semi-colons, though...


Vicki Delany said...

I am an anti-exclamation pointer. (Yes, even before they were excessively used by one US president). I have been known to stop reading a book if the exclamation point is overused. It's not just a matter of punctuation. If the writing and the dialogue doesn't let the reader know this is a point worth emphasizing, then the writing isn't any good. Who was it who said a writer is allowed five exclamation points in their entire career?

John R. Corrigan (D.A. Keeley) said...

I love this post. I enjoy reading John Irving to see what he does with punctuation -- it's artful and helpful, the way he uses it. Thanks for getting me thinking about this!

Donis Casey said...

Ill-used apostrophes cause me distress as well. Commas are sometimes hard to figure out. My editor seems to think that the fewer commas one uses the better, which makes a long sentence look run-on to me. On the other hand, I had an aunt who used a comma after every other word in her letters. I like your comparison between punctuation and a discreet butler. It's the perfect simile.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Really! Exclamation points? Not worth the fuss!!!

Aline Templeton said...

I di say punctuation arosed the passions! Donis, I know what you mean about the commas. I tend to puctuate as I was taught in school but knowing my editor prefers them kept to a minimum I now take them out afterwards - as between 'minimum' and 'I' in this sentence.

Philips Huges said...

Its a wonderful post and very helpful, thanks for all this information. You are including better information regarding this topic in an effective way.Thank you so much

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