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July 6, 2009

I’m not talking about sending The Clash to college, I’m talking about the use of improper punctuation.

Were you paying attention?  I just did it.  Very first sentence.  (We’ll discuss fragments in another post.)  The two clauses in that sentence are both independent an thus should be joined by a conjunction (and/but/or/a few others) or a semicolon.  But I used a comma.  What kind of vandal does that make me, desecrating the laws of punctuation like that?

Renni Browne and David King, in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, suggest that using commas in the place of conjunctions or semicolons (in small doses) can lend some modern sophistication to a story.  They especially seem to advocate the use in dialogue, but it follows by extension that character thoughts might also benefit from such comma usage.  They claim it better represents the rhythm of human speech.

“Don’t worry about it, she’s only sixteen.”

“Try the blue ones, they taste like cotton candy.”

He pushed the engines harder, the entire ship started to shake.

Semicolon genocide

Semicolon genocide

In these examples, a semicolon is probably the “correct” punctuation mark to use.  Do the commas detract from the meaning?  I doubt it.  (Full disclosure: the first sentence is from the book, the other two are mine.)  They could even be independent sentences with periods where the commas are.  That might make the sentences seem choppy (and hence the paragraph or even a scene).  It’s a convention I try to pay attention to when I read.  I tend to like it, though semicolons and I are still well acquainted.

I carry the convention a bit further.  For instance, I occasionally leave out commas between independent clauses joined with a conjunction.  This was pointed out to me in a recent critique.  While the critiquer suggested the offense was widespread, this was the sentence used to illustrate:

Her son would remain a [drug] dealer and she would continue to supply him.

I confess, there should definitely be a comma in front of the and.  But.  (Wow, how’s that for a fragment?  Too much?)  The point of this part of the scene was to express the main character’s resgnation to the fact that she has fallen into a perpetual cycle that she can’t escape.  The thoughts are supposed to be droning and a bit muddled.  I feel like the run-on sentence here portrays that feeling pretty well, kind of a punctuation poetry.  I’m not great with poetic devices like alliteration that could probably do something similar (I try on occasion).  I just think it works.  It can also work to express when a character feels rushed or anxious.

To me, this falls in the same category as starting sentences with conjunctions and ending sentences with prepositions.  I wouldn’t do it in a dissertation; I find it acceptable — even beneficial — in fiction.

Am I an expert?  Interesting question.  I have no degrees in English (or any other language), literature, creative writing, needlepoint, poetry, or juggling.  I have no professional publishing credits.  I have never held a job as any sort of editor.  I’m not even very good with chopsticks.  So who am I to say these things are okay?

Then again, I do have more published SF stories than any English teacher/professor I ever had (that I know of, some might lead secret lives).  I can, of course, point to a thousand examples from true professionals (but those big-wigs can get away with anything).  And who is more qualified than me to declare what belongs in my fiction?  Oh yeah, editors.

Will an editor reject my story because it needed a semicolon instead of a comma?  I hope not.  They might even decide I didn’t know the difference between a semicolon and a comma and still request a rewrite, perhaps even asign the editing chore in-house.  More likely they would decide the story was pretty good and buy it if it was close enough that punctuation was the deciding factor.

I’d like to think that some editors (not likely all, but some) would hop on board with Browne and King and find  sophistication in the punctuation (or at least appreciate the rhyme).  I have a fairly significant mastery of the rules of grammar and thus use these non-standard forms intentionally (or at worst subconsciously).  I consider them a strength in my writing.  I just need to find editors who agree.

It might be wise to reserve these non-standard techniques until after the reader is hooked.  Wouldn’t it suck to have a story nixed by a slush reader because I missed two commas and a semicolon on the first page?  Or have an editor open an e-submission in Word and see nothing but green squiggles?

So I will continue to dabble in the dark arts of non-standard punctuation when I find it to my benefit.  I’ll go through a story or two tomorrow with an eye for this specifically; overuse can minimize the effect, after all.  I encourage people to do the same, even watch for it in stories I critique to see if I can find a reason they chose a given style.  (I probably miss some intentionals and over-rationalize mistakes.)

For the record, I encourage my reviewers to point out any fishy punctuation they find in my stories.  I may not have done it intentionally or I may not realize how often I’ve done it.  Never break a rule you don’t know and you always need to know when yyou broke a rule.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2009 5:44 pm

    I posit that the fragment you give as an example has deeper issues than the need for punctuation… It’s tell, not show and since I’ve read the story it comes from… probably should be cut.

    On the whole nonstandard punctuation issue, I agree though that sometimes it’s useful to break the ‘rules’. I’m a fan of fragment sentences to add emphasis or change up cadence. I think the real danger lurks in breaking the rules so often in a single story that anyone reading it is forced to wonder whether the author knew the rules in the first place 🙂 Moderation, and all that.

    Of course, I hate semicolons and think they should all die. Die! Mostly because I always have the worst time deciding when one should be used, despite “eats shoots and leaves” sitting next to me on the shelf.

  2. July 13, 2009 12:56 pm

    The English teacher (me) weighs in with some trite remarks!

    Yes, I think one needs to know the rules in order to break them. I obsess about the ungrammatical choices I make. Writing is an art that requires specific communication skills for coherence. It would stink to be unintentionally confusing to the reader. I think a good editor realizes the difference.

    And I love me some semicolons; they are SO fun, as long as they aren’t overused.

  3. July 28, 2009 12:00 pm

    Should it be “punk-tuation”? Or maybe “punked-tuation.”

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