LESSON Funky Punctuation: Know Your Enemy

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Asmodeus, Nov 19, 2012.

  1. Punctuation: its function; useage - in posts - and much, much more...


    [Disclaimer: This is just my personal take. There's probably better stuff on Google, by people who are paid to do this. But they don't have my unique and implicit hostility.]


    So, first and foremost, here's the golden rule when it comes to punctuation:

    PUNCTUATION IS THERE TO REPLACE SOMETHING

    Just like when you use apostrophes to replace the "o" in "Do Not" and create "Don't". The only purpose of these funny markings that we call punctuation is to replace something that otherwise would have to be said for the sentence to make sense.

    Here's an example:


    John was a mailman and was making a delivery because he delivered to many streets in this town that were both good and bad ones and yet today was a special day for a particular reason that shall be revealed later in this text.

    ...This sentence, with the aid of punctuation, can be shortened to:

    John, a mailman, was making a delivery; he delivered to many streets in this town - both good and bad ones - yet today was a special day for a particular reason...

    The meaning is still the same. Nothing is lost. If anything, the sentence is made more powerful and punchy. Writing is about communicating a message as effectively as possible without tripping the reader up on clunky and unnecessary fragments.


    Therefore, remember at all times that punctuation is there to REPLACE things. And the mark you use depends on what you want to replace:





    The Period
    The period is sometimes known as the "full-stop", because it marks a full and complete stop in a thought process.

    The dog ran around the tree whilst elsewhere the Duke of Istanbul got ready for his birthday party.
    The sea is a perilous place and also rivers sometimes contain salmon.
    I heard the space rocket reached the moon but anyway there was a horse in my yard today.

    These sentences sound stupid when two entirely disconnected throughts are put together. It gives the reader the impression that the two things are connected somehow - that the dog running around the tree is somehow part of the Duke of Istanbul's birthday preparations, or that the Duke of Istanbul preparing for his birthday has somehow caused a dog to run around a tree. This just confuses the reader and distracts from the point you're trying to make.

    In these situations we used the PERIOD to replace "whilst elsewhere", "and also", and "but anyway". It is a shorthand way to indicate a shift of topic or change of direction.

    The dog ran around the tree. The Duke of Istanbul got ready for his birthday party.
    The sea is a perilous place. Rivers sometimes contain salmon.
    I heard the space rocket reached the moon. There was a horse in my yard today.

    Most professional editors will start by reducing your text to as many separate sentences as possible. This way they have the skeleton of the various points you are making, and can tell when you are repeating yourself. The Period is therefore one of the most effective ways to clarify your thoughts.

    So in summary, Use Periods to separate unrelated thoughts.



    The Comma
    If, however, the thoughts are connected in some way, we can make use of the Comma. The Comma is there to replace a single conjuction that would normally connect two thoughts (such as "and", "but", "while", etc.)

    The dog ran around the tree while wagging its tail and barking.
    The sea is a perilous place and is coloured blue but not green.
    I heard the space rocket reached the moon then turned around after leaving behind a flag.

    With commas these sentences each have the unnecessary conjunctions removed:

    The dog ran around the tree, wagging its tail, barking.
    The sea is a perilous place, is coloured blue, not green.
    I heard that the space rocket reached the moon, turned around, leaving behind a flag.

    We don't need to say that the dog is wagging its tail at the EXACT time that it runs around the tree, as the reader can assume this by themselves. And we do not need to be told that the tail-wagging AND the barking is happening, because by putting the two actions together, with a comma, we understand the picture of a dog running around a tree, barking and wagging its tail. The three images are communicated in a nice doggy sandwich without the need for clunky conjunctions.

    So in summary, Use commas to replace ONE unnecessary conjunction.



    The Semi-Colon
    The notorious semi-colon gives a lot of people trouble, and I still trip up on it sometimes, even with my Masters in Professional Writing. It is a troublesome thing. But the golden rule with semi-colons is to use them to replace MULTIPLE conjuctions. Think of it as a "super-comma", able to knock out more than one unnecessary word in a row.

    The dog ran around the tree and in doing so it amused its owner greatly.
    The sea is a perilous place and because of this lighthouses were built to ensure safety.
    I heard that the space rocket reached the moon and I was told this by a news report.

    The semi-colon allows you to cut off a lot of words and take a longer "pause" in the sentence than an ordinary comma. The two parts of the sentence aren't as tightly connected in the thought process, so this allows you to take a longer pause, and for the reader to fill in the gaps.

    In effect, the reader is filling in more than just one word for you when you put a semi-colon there.

    The dog ran around the tree; it amused its owner greatly.
    The sea is a perilous place; lighthouses were built to ensure safety.
    I heard that the space rocket reached the moon; I was told this by a news report.

    The important information is retained. The needless words are removed. If there is ever a conjunction left near a semi-colon then you haven't used it correctly. A semi-colon should be able to knock out ALL the ifs, buts, ands and whiles between the two pieces of information.

    So in summary, Use Semi-Colons to remove multiple conjuctions.



    The Colon
    The colon, as you can tell by its appearance, combines the function of a Period and a Semi-Colon. It indicates a pause, and also removes unnecessary words. It is not quite a subject change, and not quite a run-on in the sentence. It indicates a pause... a foreshadowing... a dramatic lifting of the finger.

    This is why colons are used mostly when a list or explanation is about to follow. Without them, sentences look like this:

    The dog ran around three different trees which namely were the Willow, Oak and Ash tree.
    The sea is a perilous place of dangers such as drowning, shark-attacks and hypothermia.
    I heard that the space rocket reached many places like the moon, Mars and the rings of Saturn.

    The colon leaves the sentence hanging and sets up the reader for the payoff. When a reader sees a colon, he knows that the answer is about to follow - that the thought will be completed. Without a colon you have to say things like "and on this list is..." or "and these were the following".

    The dog ran around three different trees: the Willow, Oak and Ash tree.
    The sea is a perilous place of dangers: drowning, shark-attacks and hypothermia.
    I heard that the space rocket reached many places: the moon, Mars and the rings of Saturn.

    You may sometimes see colons used in titles, such as "STAR TREK IX: THE SEARCH FOR ZOMBIE KIRK!" Here the same principle is being used. We are told that this is a Star Trek film, and the colon shows the reader that the precise title of this installment is about to follow. Without it, the title would be "THE SEARCH FOR ZOMBIE KIRK WHICH IS THE NINTH INSTALLMENT OF THE STAR TREK SERIES"

    The best way to think of a colon is as a dramatic pause.

    So in summary, Use Colons when you are about to answer the setup.



    The Single Dash
    Sometimes you will see a Dash used in place of more traditional marks like the Colon or Comma. Often this is a stylistic choice by the writer. However, if you are looking for a uniform rule, here is a good one to use:

    A single dash is used EXACTLY like a colon, BUT only when there is one answer or one thing on the list to follow.

    In these sentences, there is only one payoff to the setup:

    The dog ran around a certain tree which was the Oak.
    The sea is a perilous place with one great danger that is shark-attacks.
    I heard the space rocket reached its destination which was the moon.

    The Dash indicates to the reader that there is only going to be one answer to follow, and that this answer is beyond all doubt. Stylistically, it is good to use Dashes to make powerful points, as the horizontal line is reminiscent of a mathematical formula or a sword-strike or a pen, delivering the reader right to the bullseye of your message. See how powerful the following sentences sound in your head.

    The dog ran around a certain tree - the Oak.
    The sea is a perilous place with one great of danger - shark-attacks.
    I heard that the space rocket its destination - the moon.

    It should sound like you are taking a pause, which is dramatic like the colon pause, and yet the answer to follow is so obvious that you almost don't need to say it. You are not giving a list or an obscure answer. You are stating what the reader is possibly already aware of. It shuts the debate down decisively.

    So in summary, Use a Dash when you are about to give one answer the setup.



    The Question Mark
    This is probably the easiest punctuation mark to use, as it is employed in the most basic of information gathering and social interaction on the verbal level. Some of the first sentences we utter as children are questions. We use them when we desire an answer, when something is unknown, or if something remains a mystery.

    Without it sentences look like this:

    Why did the dog run around that tree is something I wish to know.
    How can the sea be perilous is something you must tell me.
    Have you heard that the space rocket reached its destination and if so please indicate such.

    Very simple. When the question mark is used, it goes without saying that you want your enquiry answered.

    Why did the dog run around that tree?
    How can the sea be perilous?
    Have you heard that the space rocket reached its destination?

    Sometimes, the question will not be answered. Sometimes it will be an enduring mystery, like "How will the world end?" But nonetheless, it is something you want the reader to ponder, even if there is no answer. And likewise, the question mark is sometimes used when attempting an answer, such as "Maybe a meteor will fall?" The upwards inflection is key - it denotes uncertainty, mystery or suggestion.

    So in summary, Use a Question Mark when the response to your setup needs consideration.



    The Exclamation Mark
    Perhaps the most abused and over-used of the punctuation marks. Thanks to comic books and cartoons, there is a tendency among some writers to use exclamation marks at the end of every sentence, regardless of its tone. Some think it should be used for shouting, or to denote energetic character.

    Technically, this is incorrect.

    The Exclamation Mark is used precisely for "exclamations" - for statements that express disbelief or outburst. The following are examples of overuse.

    The dog ran around the tree! It was barking! It was wagging its tail! But I thought it was dead!
    The sea is perilous! A shark ate my cousin! And I hear people drown and get hypothermia!
    The space rocket reached its destination! I bet the moon feels weird! The astronauts will be heroes when they get back!

    Is it really a surprise that a dog is running around a tree? Or barking? Is it really a surprise that the sea is perilous and that people can drown in water? Is it really outrageous to suggest that the moon feels weird?

    The exclamation mark should be used only at the point of exclamation - the point of true wonder, the point where, previously there was uncertainty. The "exclamation" is the part that should be truly celebrated or feared or wondered at.

    Here's a more conservative usage. Note how it sounds in your head, and how the important part of the message is emphasized by a single excalamation mark.

    The dog ran around the tree. It was barking. It was wagging its tail. But I thought it was dead!
    The sea is perilous. A shark ate my cousin! And I hear people drown and get hypothermia.
    The space rocket reached its destination! I bet the moon feels weird. The astronauts will be heroes when they get back.

    The same principle is used for outbursts and revelations, when a character or author finally snaps and blurts out. Again, it is the idea of the unexpected - of something occuring to you that you weren't expecting. Like "You're idiots!" or "This steak is tasty!". Use these only when the opposite was initially expected.

    Exclamation marks are not used for shouting. Not unless what you're shouting is a revelation of previously unknown information. Using too many exclamation marks puts everything at the same frantic level and suggests that your character/author is an immature or naive idiot taking wonder in the mundane.

    So in summary, Use an Exclamation Mark when the genuinely unexpected is revealed.



    The Ellipsis
    Sometimes just as overused as the exclamation mark, Ellipses function like any other punctuation mark to REMOVE what is unnecessary. In this case, the ellipses are there in place of an UNFINISHED or INCOMPLETE thought. They represent something that hasn't been said, by the character or author, or something that doesn't need to be said.

    Here is an example of Ellipses overuse:

    The dog ran around the tree... barking and wagging its tail... it was an oak tree...
    The sea is perilous... full of dangers like drowning... and hypothermia.... and sharks...
    I heard the news... about the rocket... reaching the moon... I bet the moon feels weird.

    This make it looks like the character or author is confused, unsure of what they were saying. It makes them seem surprised that a dog is barking and wagging its tail, or that you can drown at sea. Or as if something more is implicit between those pieces of information. If someone did this in normal conversation it would be annoying. Ellipses should never be used to state the obvious or to suggest something is there when it's not.

    Here is much better usage.

    The dog ran around the tree, barking and wagging its tail. I couldn't see anything up in the tree but I wonder...
    The sea is perilous, full of dangers like drowning and hypothermia. And I hear there are sharks...
    I heard the news... I bet the moon feels weird.

    In the above sentences, we are cutting out VAST sections of the sentences - sometimes entire thoughts. We are doing this because they don't need to be said. It is all implied. We are already wondering if there is a cat up the tree. We already know that sharks are prone to eat people at sea. And we know what news the author is talking about in the third sentence.

    Using Ellipses allows you to rip out a huge part of the authorial thought process and leave it as pure implication. The effect can be disorientating, but also highly effective. Especially in dialogue. Characters who use Ellipses can leave you hanging or create very bizarre impressions. It forces the reader to fill in the gaps, and often their imagination paints a much better picture than you ever could.

    So in summary, Use an Ellipsis when you want the reader to imagine what you haven't explicitly stated.



    The Dash-Insert and Brackets
    Sometimes in writing you will see the use of brackets or dashes which are put around additional or qualifying information. These occur in the middle or at the end of sentences and are inserted to clarify something. It is a good way to ensure that the reader does not misunderstand you, without having to write a whole separate sentence.

    For example:

    The dog ran around the tree, barking and wagging its tail. There was a cat up there.
    The sea is perilous, full of dangers like drowning and hypothermia. The Atlantic is the worst.
    I heard the space rocket reached the moon. This was the second space rocket, not the first.

    In the above sentences, the second parts may not be entirely relevant to the point the author is trying to make. It might not matter what is up the tree, or which ocean is the worst, or which space rocket it was. Putting them in a second sentence might distract the reader and make them give too much importance to the cat, the Atlantic and the different space rockets.

    But my inserting that information in brackets, it allows the reader to make a quick note of that information without digressing from the central point. It is a tidbit, an addendum, a throw-away detail.

    The dog ran around the tree (there was a cat up there), barking and wagging its tail.
    The sea is perilous (the Atlantic is the worst), full of dangers like drowning and hypothermia.
    I heard the space rocket (the second rocket, not the first) reached the moon.

    The writer has now got the information across and can continue talking about the dog running around the tree instead of the cat, the hypothermia instead of the Atlantic, and the moon-landing instead of the rocket version. It keeps the reader informed and on the right track.


    The difference between using brackets or dash-inserts is largely stylistic between writers, but as a rule of thumb dash inserts are used when the inserted information is not a separate sentence. Use dashes when the insert is ALMOST part of the sentence but is still only extraneous information.

    Like so:

    The dog ran around the tree - where a cat was - barking and wagging its tail.
    The sea - particularly the Atlantic - is perilous, full of dangers like drowning and hypothermia.
    I heard the space rocket - the second one - reached the moon.

    This is much briefer information, inserted almost as if it is part of the main sentence. If it was separated by commas, the reader might assume that it was important information. But when you use dashes, it gives the sense of an additional titbit and nothing to be taken too seriously.

    It is an aside, a muttered addition - not a complete insert of information like the words in brackets. Dashes allow for a faster flow, so should always be used when inserting small and easy pieces of information, whereas larger and more complex inserts should be included in brackets (because brackets naturally slow the eye down when reading - unlike the dash which moves you along swiftly).

    So in summary, Use Brackets to insert a less important but complete piece of information. And use Dash-Inserts to insert a less important but qualifying piece of information.
     
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