How to Abuse and Neglect Punctuation Marks
What is it about punctuation marks that cause so many bad sentence constructions?
You know the sentences I’m talking about. They’ve got random commas, missing quotation marks, and way too many exclamation points.
To make matters worse, some writers break the rules and get away with it while others are chastised for doing (what appears to be) the same thing.
E.E. Cummings ignored most of the rules and made up a few of of his own, and now his poetry is studied in universities. Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotation marks with the dialogue in his novel, and he won a Pulitzer Prize.
And then there’s the Internet. Now everyone’s a writer with a blog and a bunch of social media profiles. Bad grammar and badly placed punctuation marks have become rampant.
Common Mistakes and Abuses of Punctuation Marks
Typos are one thing. Not knowing the correct way to write a sentence is another thing. But blatantly misplacing or misusing punctuation marks is just plain reckless.
Too many commas
I’m a big fan of the serial comma, but let’s not get carried away. Commas often indicate pauses but they should not be used to tell the reader where to pause.
You can get away with placing commas at pause points to some extent, but only because many of our natural pauses occur where clauses end or after each item in a list.
Here’s an example of telling readers where to pause, using commas:
Lots of writers use commas, to tell readers where to pause, and take a breath, as if the readers can’t figure it out, on their own.
We all pause in different places and your writing will feel forced and unnatural if you use punctuation marks as if they are musical notations.
Quotation marks for emphasis
I have to admit, this is becoming one of my pet peeves: putting words and phrases in quotation marks for emphasis. Here are some examples:
- You know, they just “had” to go fishing last weekend.
- Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to “rock your boat.”
- If you sign up, they’ll send you a “free book!”
Quotation marks are for dialogue, quoted material, and sometimes for titles or headlines. But for some reason, people have gone crazy with quotation marks. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated to “unnecessary quotes.”
Writers who abuse quotation marks in this manner need to have a little more faith in their readers. Trust that they will know where to place emphasis. If you really need to tell the reader which word(s) get stressed, then use italics. But try to avoid that, too.
This use probably stems from the (informal) practice of using quotation marks to indicate that something is “so-called.” Here’s an example:
That “writer” over there doesn’t seem to have a dictionary.
In this case, quotation marks are placed around “writer” to suggest that the person is a so-called writer, but actually isn’t much of a writer at all. These are called scare quotes, and their usage is almost always derogatory and sarcastic. Use scare quotes with caution; insulting other writers is not going to do anything positive for your reputation.
Too many punctuation marks!!!
Did you hear me??? I wrote a book!!! Let me tell you all about it…..
Some people are so passionate. It’s inspiring, really, except when I’m reading a novel or some other piece of writing that should be professional quality. It’s one thing when my friend on Facebook tell me that her kid just said Mama!!! It’s another thing entirely when a character in a novel is really, really, very excited!!!
When you use three question marks instead of one, does the question become deeper? More mysterious? Is an expression with three exclamation points more exciting or more imperative than an expression with just one exclamation point? And what’s up with using more than three dots in an ellipsis? Does a five-dot ellipsis mean it’s taking you longer to trail off than a three-dot ellipsis?
While this usage is acceptable in casual settings (and really, what usage isn’t acceptable in casual settings?), it’s a bit much when you’re writing at the professional level. Too many punctuation marks distract the reader and make the text look sloppy. They also render a pushy, in-your-face, or desperate tone. But like I said, on Facebook, they’re kinda cute.
There’s this thing called an ampersand
A few weeks ago, I started reading this novel (whose name shall be withheld), & before I finished page two, it occurred to me that something was wrong with the writing. I scanned the page & realized that the author was using ampersands in place of the word and.
& let me tell you, it was annoying.
Prose is not signage. It’s not a tweet. The ampersand is not a word; it’s a symbol, & we are not writing in hieroglyphics. We write in words & sentences. I don’t have anything personal against the ampersand. It looks nice on signage & it comes in handy on Twitter. It looks cute on trees where two lovers have carved their names:
Jack & Kate <3
Aw. How sweet.
But it really makes the reading rough when it’s used to replace the word and through an entire piece of writing.
I know. I’m a mean old grammar snob. I’m sure folks who use these constructions are on the edge of their seats right now, scouring my blog for some little mistake, some place where I used an extra exclamation mark or an ampersand. I’m sure some are getting ready to drop comments letting me know that they “like” using quotation marks for emphasis, that it’s their “style.” !!!
That’s fine. I’m just pointing out what is correct usage and what is not. If writers want to break the rules and take a few creative liberties, that’s their business, and I hope it works out. Some of my favorite writers have forgone the rules (and I love them for it).
But keep this in mind: when your text is peppered with extra, unnecessary punctuation marks, it’s a distraction to readers. Like I said, the book with all the ampersands had me thinking more about what was off about the text than what was happening in the story (and the story wasn’t very interesting either, which may explain why the author resorted to gimmicks). For the record, I didn’t make it past page thirty of that book, and I’ll never recommend it to anyone.
Taking Creative Liberties
I’m all for breaking the rules, but only if there’s a good reason for it. Cormac McCarthy broke the rules and got into Oprah’s book club. E.E. Cummings broke the rules became a celebrated American author.
Why do some writers reap rewards when they break the rules while others just look like amateurs?
I personally think this has to do with the logic behind breaking the rules. Cormac McCarthy’s book was written in a minimalist fashion. The characters didn’t even have names. And E.E. Cummings wasn’t writing prose at all; he was writing poetry, which naturally allows for more creative liberties.
There’s a difference between tinkering with the rules as an experiment in art or because the style of the narrative calls for it and breaking the rules as a way to differentiate yourself as a unique writer or simply because you’re some kind of literary rebel.
Some writers believe they are branding themselves as an author or making their work stand out because they don’t capitalize the first word of every sentence, but these are just gimmicks that distract readers from the content. You’re telling readers that your work doesn’t stand on its own and you need to resort to silly tricks to make it seem interesting.
What really sucks is when good writers use these constructions. More than once I’ve read prose and poetry that was great except for all the weird punctuation marks and bad grammar. What would have been a wonderful story or beautiful poem gets lost in the mess. And that’s a shame.
The rules of grammar aren’t there to keep you in line; they are there to help you write prose and verse that readers can navigate with ease. Always keep that in mind, and when you do break the rules or use unusual punctuation marks and formatting, do so with good reason.
Have you seen writers break the rules effectively? Have you seen writers break the rules in a way that interfered with your ability to enjoy the reading experience? What was the difference? When is it okay the break the rules?
Reign in those punctuation marks and keep writing!