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.