on punctuation

ok friends, hear me out here. i left my soapbox back in my grad school post about three pages away, but i really have no mind to drag it over here. and i don't think i need it.

when i first accepted the punctuation challenge the praises i anticipated i would proclaim for punctuation afterward were already forming in my mind. it's vitality in disambiguating the meaning of the sentences we string together could not be overstated, i would say. it is crucial to that great art we call communication.

and yet to now say such things and leave it at that would be some kind of a half-truth i cannot let alone.

the problem with punctuation is threefold: it's more often esteemed as mere utility; its rules strike me as arbitrary, if not despotic; and, to badly paraphrase Lewis Thomas, has us spending so much time separating the clauses by physical barriers to attain greater precision and exactitude for meaning, when doing so is stripping my writing from its essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity.

for once i relinquished my need for the certainty that every idea will end, succumbed to the unpredictability of a loosely strung thought, i found freedom to explore the spaces in between. and i found that sometimes the meaning of something is not subject to the delineation of the end stop, but to the way it must slow with the weight of words.

but then i may just be playing devil's advocate, for though i have my vices with anything that hints to incarceration of expression, i am so very fond of a well-punctuated sentence.

the comma, a bushy-tailed freckle, which gives pause for respite in light, taking a moment to linger, to saunter, to breathe, just to breathe. A comma pulls you from a moment, allowing it to expand, enlarge, grow wings, seeing that there will never be an end, but a continual shift in ideology and perspective, perceiving all that is encompassed in a moment I would have missed, without the pause, the comma.

says mr. thomas: "It is highly important to put them in place as you go along. If you try to come back after doing a paragraph and stick them in the various spots that tempt you you will discover that they tend to swarm like minnows in all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn't realized and before you know it the whole long sentence becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas. Better to use them sparingly, and with affection, precisely when the need for each one arises, nicely, by itself."

the period, i find rather irksome, unless it's function is better interpreted. the period presumes to tell you that is that. over and done. no more shall be said on the matter. but more can always be said. and i lose distrust in an author who attempts to tell me otherwise. and yet, when used appropriately, the period becomes a means of dictating speech in a way a comma never could. nothing pulls me closer to the writer's confession than a string of short overused stops that diminish the finality of a period and indicate he does not presume to know that there will ever be enough to be said.

Colons are a lot less attractive for several reasons. mr. thomas says, "firstly, they give you the feeling of being rather ordered around, or at least having your nose pointed in a direction you might not be inclined to take if left to yourself, and, secondly, you suspect you're in for one of those sentences that will be labeling the points to be made: firstly, secondly and so forth, with the implication that you haven't sense enough to keep track of a sequence of notions without having them numbered."

Exclamation points! "the most irritating of all. Look! they say, look at what I just said! How amazing is my thought! It is like being forced to watch someone else's small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention. If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn't need a mark to point it out. And if it is really, after all, a banal sentence needing more zing, the exclamation point simply emphasizes its banality!"

© 2012 by Rachel Lowry. All rights reserved {photo via}

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