The, Importance, of, Punctuation

Matt Hanson

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.”

 

Bibliography

 

Davis, Noah. “According to Tails Magazine, Rachael Ray Cooks Her Dog And Family.”

Business Insider. March 24, 2011. Accessed February 22, 2016.

http://www.businessinsider.com/rachael-ray-dog-tails-2011-3.

 

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.

 

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5 Comments

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  1. Katie Ballalatak March 7, 2016 — 5:29 pm

    Matt, I really appreciate your sense of humor! Your title is perfect and your example (although unfortunately—at least for you—fake) is extremely effective and illustrative. I like how you clarify that knowledge of punctuation and “mastery of the language” is needed before you can think about playing around with punctuation; you need to know the rules before you can break them. It’s especially tough to “break the rules” with punctuation because you need to keep the overall comprehension of the piece for the reader.
    I thought that it’s interesting how there are three different ways that writers can approach punctuation. It makes me wonder in what way I use punctuation. Do I hear it, see it or follow the rules? I would say that I do a little bit of everything and makes me wonder if a writer can actually ever strictly embrace one approach. Approaching grammar by following punctuation rules is at least somewhat necessary for every writer. And (at least for me), I fluctuate between relying on how I hear punctuation and how I see it on a page. It’s my opinion that a good writer (and editor) should be familiar with all of these approaches and understand how/why people use different punctuation styles even if they are personally more set in one way versus another.

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  2. Matt,

    I really enjoyed reading your paper because I think you had some great examples, and you pointed out how miscommunication can occur with a message that on first glance might look just fine. People can sometimes take away different messages from a piece based on the age that they are when they read it/take it in. That is to be expected. But even though this might happen it is extremely important that the original intention is communicated correctly in the first place. Even if subjectivity has a bit more free reign, the foundation of the piece has to be solid, hence the punctuation must be precise. I think that examples brought up in reading like the “thin, burgundy dress” serve as wiggle room when it comes managing punctuation, but you bring up how very objective and important punctuation can be with the Rachael Ray example and “Let’s eat Grandma.” When browsing through all of the punctuation rules in our book, I was fighting my eyes to keep them from glazing over, and I too thought: “Really? How much of this actually matters?” Especially upon reading the section from Norris’s piece who spoke of James Salter putting the comma in between thin and burgundy. In that regard, punctuation can be seen musically, accenting certain phrases, and enhancing story elements when needed. I imagine many conversations between authors and editors occur when dealing with punctuation in this regard. However, at the end of the day, as you point out, punctuation does have set it stone rules. As much as my poor brain would love to think that all of the rules in our textbook are just going to come out naturally on the page without need to actually reference them, it is good to pay attention to the rule book, so that we may speak tactfully.

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  3. I really liked your point in regards to the headline about Rachael Ray when you state, “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.” This is important to consider as writers because we often focus so much on word choice in relation to clarity, when in reality something as simple as a comma can change meaning as well. I definitely was able to relate to the idea that we usually consider punctuation to have a right or wrong answer, but rather there are exceptions to rules and even those who purposely choose to not follow rules. You use good, humorous examples of when correct use of punctuation is imperative.
    I too found it relieving to know that some rules we have been taught are not hard and fast, such as never ending a sentence with a preposition. You put it very eloquently when you say, “the rules can be bent, but should never be disregarded completely.” You go on to say that one must master the rules of a language before bending them, which is an interesting concept because then the focus is on the intention. We are willing to accept a stylistic or creative choice to disregard a rule but not a mistake, even if the outcome is essentially the same. The idea of the intention behind writing is important to keep in mind when editing. I like that you addressed the issue of style and the ambiguities that exist within the world of punctuation even though we usually think of it as cut and dry.

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  4. Matt, I love this piece because I feel the exact same way about the rules of grammar. Writing comes fairly naturally to me as well, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to study grammar under the assumption that I haven’t already known all the rules since high school or before. Turns out the whole affair is a lot more complicated than I ever realized! I really like the phrase, “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.” Your summary of Einsohn’s three punctuation styles is nice and concise, while still fully explaining how many different ways one can use punctuation correctly.

    I also really enjoyed the last two paragraphs of your paper. You wrap it up nicely with the assertion that in the end, the writer has to think about the reader when deciding how to punctuate a sentence, which I agree is the most important takeaway. But you also sow a little doubt: “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.” While your concluding example perfectly sums up the importance of punctuation, I really liked this final acknowledgement of how complicated the subject is.

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  5. Hi Matt, I used to think the same thing about the rules of punctuation and grammar, especially in regarding them as being right, wrong, and rigid issues. It has been a relief to me all semester that there are some rules that simply don’t have to be followed because they aren’t real rules! I like having rules, but it is nice to be able to relax when there aren’t as many rules as you thought. Rules are good for keeping writing structured and consistent, but they can quickly become an annoyance rather than a help when they become rigid.
    I thought you made a great point when you said “however, applying leniency in punctuation is a skill that should only be utilized by those who have obtained mastery of the language.” It only makes sense that a person needs to have a skill completely toned before being able to mess with it. That’s the only way a person can even know what to mess with! Knowing the rules of punctuation allows someone to also know when it is okay to break them for certain situations. I’m thinking mostly creative writing right now but there may be other good examples too.

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