Why punctuation matters

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

This blog has focused a lot on surface errors, such as those of punctuation, partly because it’s a way to give writers quick and focused tips on common mistakes that appear in writing by beginners and professionals. “Mistakes are a fact of life,” as the Lunsfords say in an essay with that as its title (College Composition and Communication June 2008).

When the errors an unintentional, or when they go against style guides that are important to an author’s field, then these mistakes can count against the writer. This is one reason we have discussed errors on lists, such as the Top Twenty, common mistakes that recur in compositions by writers of all levels of experience. 

Kolln, in Rhetorical Grammar writes, “The importance of accurate punctuation cannot be overemphasized. Not only will readers be guided accurately through your ideas, they well also gain confidence in you as a writer—and as an authority on your topic” (84). She also says that “[i]t’s easy for a reader to conclude—perhaps unfairly—that slipshod punctuation equals slipshod thinking. Your image, your credibility as a writer, can only be enhanced when you make accurate, effective, and helpful punctuation choices” (84).

If this doesn’t provide motivation for learning about punctuation and grammar, another linguistic expert, LeTourneau, asserts this: “The connection between grammar and punctuation is one of the most direct ways that grammar can support writers” (English Grammar 475).

To explore this assertion, let’s consider the comma, one that Little, Brown says “probably causes more anguish for apprentice writers than any other punctuation mark” (355). The text goes on to state that most uses are conventional, following prescriptive usage.

Here’s what one writer, Lewis Thomas, wrote in an essay called “Notes on Punctuation”:

“The commas are the most useful and usable of all the stops. 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.” (From The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979:103-6)

Thomas, a medical doctor and essayist, was a strong advocate of punctuation, especially of a prescriptive usage in the strain of Strunk and White, authors of the classic The Elements of Style.

But in order to know where to place commas as you go along, a writer must know the rules, and commas are the most frequently misused, or underused, punctuation mark among the ones freshmen writes have learned. Yet, as we’ve seen in an earlier post, experienced writers also have problems with comma usage.

Sometimes, as Little, Brown notes, these problems arise because students were encouraged to memorize the rules, rather than to understand them. Sometimes, especially with the reaction against prescriptive grammar and the criticism of teaching methods described as “drill and kill,” students were taught to “put in a comma when you pause” or take a breath.

However, as LeTourneau points out, this “rule” is not reliable. At times, commas can mark pauses, as when used around non-restrictive adjective clauses. But commas do not always mark a pause when they are used with introductory or parenthetical phrases or appositives. Unlike the 18th century where it was more consistently the norm to use punctuation to transcribe intonation patterns in speech, LeTourneau argues that today “[w]e don’t punctuate where we pause in speech when we read aloud; rather we pause where we punctuate” (475-476, 480).

LeTourneau proposes a more useful approach in learning and teaching punctuation, which is to show how punctuation marks set off syntactical constituents. Kolln agrees: “It’s important to remember the purpose of punctuation: to give the reader information about the kind of structure that follows” (84). Even in the 18th century, some grammarians recognized that “[c]ertain parts of speech are kept together, and others are divided by stops, according to their grammatical construction, often without reference to the pauses in discourse” (Thomas Sheridan qtd in LeTourneau 481).

As discussed in this blog, most contemporary language experts recognize punctuation rules apply to written English, not spoken English. And when punctuation marks grammatical boundaries, it “can make distinctions that intonation doesn’t capture” (LeTourneau 480).

We don’t make punctuation errors when speaking. Kolln distinguishes speaking from writing, asserting that speaking is intuitive, while writing is a learned behavior: “And as with all learned behaviors, people vary widely in their ability to perform them” (25).

Depending on your interest or experience in writing, you may benefit from an occasional checks or reviews of traditional usage rules like those provided in this blog; or you may need a more systematic approach to learning about punctuation and grammar. The purpose of this blog and website is to provide writers with essential information on the fundamentals of English. In addition, it offers tips and strategies for writers about discovering their own voice and style, which we’ve touched on in many posts. In another post, we take a deeper look at how some “errors” are not mistakes at all, but are stylistic options consciously chosen by writers for rhetorical effects.

(Resources: Lunsford, Top Twenty; Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; LeTourneau, English Grammar; Little, Brown Handbook)

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