For want of… punctuation

Shoot Jack.

 That’s what my dad was yelling when he was hunting with my two brothers. Question is, was he telling my younger brother, Jack, to shoot? Or my older brother to commit fratricide?  Or is it a statement of frustration?

 Okay, bad example. Try this one: Try it on Otis.

Do you mean to say: Try it on, Otis. As in having your friend Otis try on a piece of clothing?

Or: Try it on Otis. As in – try to pull a fast one over on Otis (or some other thing you want poor Otis to get stuck with?

 And we’ve all heard about “Eats shoots and leaves” – Let’s hope there’s no comma in there or we might be dealing with a hungry gunman.

 Punctuation. As soon as I say the word (or write it in this case), I see eyes glaze over and people find other places they need to be in a hurry. But without punctuation, things can get real confusing real fast, as seen in the above.

 Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on the proper way to punctuate things. To keep from muddying the waters too much, I’m going to use American standard for this blog and my manual of choice is the Chicago Manual of Style. Why do I need to state this? Because different countries have different ways of punctuating things. And different style guides even differ on their rules. Though most publishers lean toward the Chicago Manual of Style, many of them have their own style guides that may deviate somewhat from even that standard of style.

 So why should we care about punctuation? Because it helps clarify the meaning of sentences. Take the above. Without punctuation, there can be multiple meanings to the sentences. And you can’t always get the gist of the sentence with the context of surrounding writing. It can also convey emotion. For instance, the ending punctuations of periods, question marks, and exclamation marks.

 You failed the test.

You failed the test?

You failed the test!

 Hmmm. The first could be a teacher with a student. Or one girlfriend talking to another about a pregnancy test. Then the second is a boyfriend’s reaction. Or the third is a husband’s reaction. By changing just that one little thing – the end punctuation – the entire meaning of the sentence is changed.

 Then there’s the common little comma. As a dozen people about where to place commas and you’ll get a dozen different opinions. I’m not even going to try to explain them because the rules are different with different houses. But generally (and I’m using the term loosely), commas go between lists of things, after prepositional phrases, or wherever there’s a pause. Follow whatever style your house uses.

 There’s a lot more to punctuation than just these few things. I’ll go into some more of them in a later blog, but please, do yourself, your editor, and your readers a favor and learn how to use punctuation.


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