On Writing - Punctuating Above My Weight
As I continue my journey through the basics of the English language and the “rules” of writing, I’ve decided that my next stop should be the “full stop” – or to be exact, punctuation.
I hold my hands up – I am guilty of an overzealous use of the exclamation mark. My emails are littered with them and it’s quite a common problem. Research* shows that women are the main abusers of this enthusiastic punctuation - apparently the positivity it exudes feeds into our endless need to be liked and kind to people. Going cold turkey is hard - but I know that my overuse of them makes me sound inauthentic and probably less commanding. Which is a problem when you’re supposed to be a HR subject matter expert and write emails about employment law and payroll regulation all day. And when you consider that F. Scott Fitzgerald likened the use of exclamation marks to “laughing at your own joke” – you realise how inappropriate they are to add to your latest missive about PAYE.
Emails and texting are also to blame for my lax use of the full stop. Not that my sentences in emails run on for ever and a day. No, instead, to be punchy and to the point, I break up sentences with ablank line – giving myself approval to simply hit the enter key twice rather than finish appropriately with a full stop. Thankfully, Microsoft’s enhanced spelling and grammar checker now holds me to account at work (if a little too obsessively). In my personal writing, well interestingly it’s not that much of a problem. See. I used a full stop then. And again. Of course, this lack of respect for the full stop in my informal correspondence doesn’t seem to have impacted my inappropriate use of ellipses in every online conversation I have…
I can’t go into every element of punctuation here, so instead, I’ve dug into a couple of the more controversial elements, just for fun.
Semi-colons: Wow, these are truly hated. But I’ve honestly not found a good reason – other than being ugly (Donald Barthelme), fussy (Edward Abbey), and apparently a way for a writer to show off (Kurt Vonnegut). Shockingly, two Parisian law professors in 1837 were so angry about the use of the semi-colon, they duelled over it! But as a way of illustrating relationships between two thoughts – and as Abraham Lincoln noted - “…it’s a useful little chap”. And who am I to disagree with the man who abolished slavery in the US.
Oxford commas: I won’t lie, this little brother to the humble comma drives me mad, clogging up my sentences by adding a final comma in a list of things before the last conjunction of a sentence**. It’s not something that I really knew I “needed” to use until Microsoft started automatically adding them into my writing. It’s also quite a controversial little mark, sparking debates about its usage as being pretentious, cluttered and redundant. However, there’s always a place for the Oxford comma – as this quote from The Times newspaper about a Peter Ustinov documentary proves. “…highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”. Now there’ an image!
Em dashes: For the longest time I’ve referred to these as hyphens, only to embarrassingly find out that what I’m frequently using is the “em dash”. Loved by writers – hated by editors. Apparently, it stops efficient writing and disrupts the flow of a sentence. But oh,the writing possibilities. They draw attention, amplify surprising information or signal interruptions in dialogue. And for someone who often goes off on tangents in their writing – this little dash has become quite important for me.
So what about you? Do you have an element of punctuation that is your nemesis, and you refuse to use? Or one that you sprinkle liberally throughout your work like salt over fish and chips - always knowing that it’s not actually good for you? And maybe, just maybe, we should write in the way we want - and to hell with all those punctuation norms. It didn’t do ee cummings any harm and what’s wrong with making people think differently when they read your work. Food for thought perhaps?
*This 2019 BBC article goes into more detail on this study “The danger of overusing exclamation marks”
** Do I sound like I know what I’m saying?
First published in edition 50 of Veracity Magazine - the inhouse magazine for Verulam Writers