Good writers are committed to improving their craft. You really never stop learning how to write better, more clearly, and more concisely. And that’s why it’s sometimes nice to go back to the basics. You know, do a little soul searching, ask yourself the big questions. How about this one: What the heck is punctuation good for, anyway?
I’ll lay out my own little philosophy on punctuation—and feel free to disagree—but hopefully you might glean a nugget of wisdom or two for your own writing adventures. For me, punctuation is merely a shorthand to communicate the natural ebb and flow of the spoken word, and ultimately the thought process itself. Take our friend the period. He’s a good-sized pause, a meaty pause. A pause that announces, “Hey, I’m finished with that thought, and I might even hop to an entirely different thought.” Period’s younger brother, the comma, is a shorter pause, more like a stutter step. He’s more afraid than the period is of hopping to another train of thought; in fact, he’s very comfortable just giving the same train of thought a little more time to breathe.
If that’s a little too New Age for you, think of it this way: say what you’re writing in your head. If you naturally pause, it’s probably time for a period. If you pause less—that is to say, take less of a breath—a comma might be in order.
In our little punctuation family, the colon and semicolon are period’s big brothers. I would argue they represent even larger pauses than the period, which I realize flies in the face of certain conventional wisdom. But the colon digs drama: he likes “a-ha” moments. In the preceding sentence, the colon separates two clauses, the latter of which explains or qualifies the former. The semicolon has a similar penchant for the dramatic pause; however, his pause is a little gentler, a little more nuanced. He ties two independent clauses together quite elegantly, and yet he still possesses a certain dramatic and breathless flair that his yeomanlike brother the period lacks.
To complicate matters, you have the crazy uncles: the parentheses and the dash. (And please note: I don’t mean to gender stereotype any of my punctuation friends. My all-male gender assignments are entirely arbitrary.) Parentheses are the Wormtongues of the punctuation family. You say things in an off-hand, under-your-breath manner by using the parentheses. On the other hand—and there is always more than one way to do things—the dash loves to call attention to itself. The dash is bold, an abrupt interruption in tone or subject that nonetheless comments on or qualifies its sentence in some way.
There are of course other, more exotic punctuations you might try… but I think you have enough to chew on! The lesson here is to think about every piece of punctuation: to make deliberate decisions based on content, intent, authorial voice, and the pauses and inflections inherent in both speech and thought. What is your philosophy of punctuation? Any tricks to share? Let us know!