As a student of literature and writing, I don’t typically need to spend too much time considering grammar and punctuation rules. That’s not to say I have perfect command over all of the rules of writing, but writing just comes naturally to me in most instances. I don’t often think of just how complicated and powerful a set of rules I am manipulating when I write. However, that’s exactly what punctuation is: a set of rules that dictates the meaning of a sentence, effectively controlling how we as readers consume what we read.
Consider the following headline printed on the cover of Tails, a monthly magazine aimed at promoting pet adoption and rescue: “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Said aloud, this sentence isn’t very likely to raise many eyebrows. However, on the page the mistakes are obvious. In fact, it’s hard to believe the headline was able to make it past even one round of editing, especially considering it appeared on the cover of the magazine. Obviously, the headline should read, “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog,” with the possible omission of the final comma depending on the magazine’s stance on the Oxford comma in their in-house style guide. (After writing this essay, I discovered that the image of the magazine cover with the comma-less headline had actually been altered in Photoshop. To their credit, Tails does indeed know how to edit.)
With the inclusion of correct comma placement, this headline becomes a perfect example of the importance of punctuation. It demonstrates how complex rules govern the way sentences and phrases are interpreted by readers. The words present might be clear, but without proper punctuation they can turn into a garbled mess that fails to convey the intended meaning of the author’s writing.
Not only is punctuation important as far as carrying the proper meaning of a sentence, but it can be orchestrated as a tool by an author to fit his own style. As outlined in Chapter 4 of Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook, writers can fall into three categories when it comes to punctuation. Aural punctuators think of punctuation in auditory terms, choosing to stylize their writing in a way that makes it easy to read. As Einsohn describes it, they “hear punctuation, and they use commas, semicolons, and colons to speed or slow the pace and rhythm of their prose” (Einsohn 2011, 72). The second category of writers belongs to those who focus on the “visual sense of punctuation” (73). These writers are more concerned with “how their sentences look on the page” (73), aiming for punctuation that is present when needed, but that does not clutter the writing. The final category consists of writers who “punctuate according to grammatical and syntactical units” (73). This category belongs primarily to editors as the punctuation is not subjective, choosing instead to follow a system of rules that does not deviate according to style.
I was blown away when reading this section in Einsohn’s text. She opened a door into writing that I’d never even considered. I always thought punctuation to be an either right or wrong approach. If I saw a comma in a sentence that I personally did not agree with, I assumed either I didn’t know the proper rule in that specific instance or that the author himself had committed an error. The idea never really occurred to me that we could both be right (or wrong) and that punctuation rules don’t have to be rigid. Obviously, I agree with the use of in-house style guides that are more strict and don’t allow for as much stylization in the writing. It only makes sense that published work ought to be more highly polished and uniform. However, I find it both eye-opening and enlightening to learn that punctuation can be so unique and stylized even in formal prose.
On a similar note, it has been refreshing to learn that rules that I had previously considered obtuse and annoying, like never ending a sentence with a preposition or beginning a sentence with ‘and’, are actually made up rules that have become socially accepted, thought not grammatically accepted. What I’ve learned thus far in my copyediting class has allowed me to view writing in a new light. If there’s a more clear way to craft a sentence but it involves ending with the word ‘for’, I can actually do so. I can think of numerous instances in my own writing in which I’ve awkwardly reworded phrases in order to fit rules I did not agree with. Like that previous sentence should “technically” be reworded to end, “in order to fit rules with which I do not agree,” but doesn’t that just sound wrong?
The same goes for punctuation. The rules can be bent, but should never be disregarded completely. However, applying leniency in punctuation is a skill that should only be utilized by those who have obtained mastery of the language. Bending rules that are commonly accepted can lead to readers assuming the author has made a mistake, so treading carefully is a necessity. All of this information about punctuation’s relative flexibility brings forth many questions: When is it acceptable for us to bend the rules? How will we know when our punctuation is incorrect if rules can be subject to opinion? Have I used incorrect punctuation in this essay? Highly likely. Has it hindered my audience’s comprehension of my intended meaning? Most likely not.
When it comes down to it, punctuation is something that requires a proper education of the rules before earning the right to toy with them. Like learning a second language, a proper grasp of the structure of the language itself needs to be achieved before any rule-breaking should occur. As far as deciding when and how to bend rules, using common sense seems to be the only right answer. Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup offer advice on this very subject in their text Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. They say, “…use your judgment: punctuate in ways that helps your readers see the connections and separations that they have to see to make sense of your sentences. That means you must put yourself in the place of your reader, not easy to do, but something you must learn” (Williams and Bizup 2014, 229).
I believe they hit the nail on the head of this complex and debatable topic. While writing can serve as a very therapeutic and personal process for the writer, the end goal of most writing is for it to be shared with readers. Oftentimes writing’s main intended purpose is reader comprehension; therefore, when it comes to punctuation, the only answer is to do what we think is best for our readers. Now this is a very difficult task, as Williams and Bizup point out, but it is a challenge that every writer must conquer.
To an outsider, the subject of where to place a tiny comma may not seem to hold much weight. Putting a microscope to such an already small subject can seem ridiculous. In fact, as I was pouring over the pages and pages of punctuation rules in the readings for class I found myself wondering how much of it really matters. Shouldn’t we have faith that our readers our intelligent enough to understand what we’re trying to say, despite a misplaced comma? However, the Rachael Ray headline reminded me of the power of punctuation. I mean, when it comes down to it, which is better? “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Let’s eat Grandma.”
Davis, Noah. “According to Tails Magazine, Rachael Ray Cooks Her Dog And Family.”
Business Insider. March 24, 2011. Accessed February 22, 2016.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate
Communications. 3rd ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.
Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lesson in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. New
Jersey: Pearson Education, 2014.