Art of Punctuation | Reviews
Oxford University Press 2006
'Punctuation is a puzzling business. '
'To learn how to use punctuation accurately is to learn a skill. However, once learned that skill can also become an art.'
'Lukeman is writing as much about syntax as he is about punctuation, and has failed to notice that the punctuation acts to guide a reader's understanding of how a sentence has been put together.'
'He invites writers to look at the way in which they construct sentences, and to do so with minute attention... Lukeman has an extremely keen and sensitive eye for sentence structure and a neat way of explaining things.'
The Art of Punctuation
Punctuation is a puzzling business. My dictionary defines it as 'the marks used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning' and 'the use of such marks'. Would that the process were so simple and straightforward. In school we are taught that sentences begin with capital letters and end with full stops. We are taught that commas signal pauses, and clauses; if we're taught with particular thoroughness, we also learn about colons and semi-colons, and the way they link sentences together. Everyone forgets about apostrophes, and many people are confused by 'quotation marks'.
To learn how to use punctuation accurately is to learn a skill. However, once learned that skill can also become an art. As a copy-editor myself, I believe that it is possible to make a distinction between using punctuation with scrupulous accuracy and using it accurately but with flexibility, to enhance the flow of a piece of prose in various ways. Punctuation can be used the way an artist uses shading. Hence, I was glad to see this book from Noah Lukeman, which is intended to explain the art of punctuation rather than the skill (so, if you're worried about how to use apostrophes properly, or about the niceties of employing a semi-colon appropriately, then this is almost certainly not the book for you: as always, I recommend Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves for a painless introduction to the matter).
Which is not to say that Lukeman seems to be clear himself as to what an interest in the accurate use of punctuation might represent. 'This book is not for grammarians', is the first sentence of Lukeman's book; almost the next thing he points out is that most writers do not need to know about seventeen different uses for a comma. I think that would be true of most people, full stop, and that includes copy-editors, strangely enough. Grammarians are primarily interested in the structures of language; punctuation is what points up those structures for the convenience of readers. It might seem that I'm being pedantic here but Lukeman's attitude does reflect a confusion that persists through the book as to what punctuation is actually for. Indeed, I'd suggest that Lukeman is writing as much about syntax as he is about punctuation, and has failed to notice that the punctuation acts to guide a reader's understanding of how a sentence has been put together.
The case in point is Lukeman's discussion of the use of the full stop. A full stop does not determine the length of a sentence but indicates where it ends. It can be a short sentence. It can end a sentence that is long and otherwise unpunctuated. Unlike a comma, a semi-colon or a colon, the full stop does little to govern the shape of the sentence it concludes. That's the writer's job. As Lukeman shows, the length of a sentence can radically alter the flow of a piece of text, its mood, the manner in which the reader accepts the information those sentences convey. Short and sharp, or long and languid, the structure of a sentence can change everything. This is what Lukeman's book is really all about. He invites writers to look at the way in which they construct sentences, and to do so with minute attention. Often, this is achieved through the medium of punctuation, to indicate a pause, a shift of thought, but the paragraph and section break are equally powerful tools in directing the reader to notice this, ignore that for now. And dialogue is nothing to do with the use of quotation marks, to be honest, but the way in which direct speech is used or not used in a narrative can make or break a novel.
Lukeman has an extremely keen and sensitive eye for sentence structure and a neat way of explaining things. He teaches by example, flags up the dangers of over- and under-use of various strategies, and sets exercises at the end of each chapter, to encourage the reader-writer to think carefully about how they work with sentences. It is a book that is well worth reading if you are the kind of writer who values that level of detail; just bear in mind that the punctuation of the title is a bit of a red herring.
|© Maureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. 2006||Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller|