Monday, June 8, 2015

For the Love of Comma

My kitty, Comma.
What is one man’s colon is another man’s comma.” ~ Mark Twain

As a writing teacher, and a working writer, I found the greatest challenge is learning the fine art of punctuation. The secret, I discovered, is writing for the reader's eye. Understanding how the reader approaches text offers you key insight into how to write with clarity and grace.

 Readers approach the text by moving left to right. Readers interpret information by this forward projection. Readers expect subject-verb-object structures in sentences. They tend to focus on the verb that resolves the sentence's syntax, and in so doing, tend to resist information until after the verb is identified. This is why concrete subjects and action-oriented verbs carry the weight of the sentence. If the subject is vague or nonexistent, or the verb is passive, the sentence often falls apart.

Because readers project forward, they intuitively search for the subject, skimming over qualifying clauses or phrases that precede the subject. This becomes important in longer sentences, when the subject does not debut until mid-way or beyond. This is why subjects placed as close to the opening of the sentence as possible make for stronger sentences.

 Active voice maintains this forward process. It originates with the grammatical subject, flows through the verb, and results in an outcome. Some research suggests that readers understand and remember information more readily when structure corresponds to this cause-effect sequence. Passive structure forces this action in reverse: a subject is either implied or supplied in a subordinate phrase, and the outcome becomes the grammatical subject.

 The rhythm of a narrative is found in its punctuation. As sentences crash and fall “like the waves of the sea,” punctuation becomes the music of the language, says Noah Lukeman, in one of my favorite reads, A Dash of Style (2006).

Periods are the stop signs, says Lukeman, and hold the most power in the punctuation universe.
All other marks – the comma, the dash, the colon and semi-colon, and so on – serve only to modify what lies between the periods. Sometimes a usurper, like the exclamation point or the question mark, intervenes, but its control is temporary. Imagine a book without periods, or a book that has periods after every word, and you begin to understand its supreme power.

 A well-placed period, especially in battle with one of its usurpers, helps pacing and adds emphasis. It speeds the narrative up in an action-sequence, heightening the drama. For example, can you hear the drum beat in this passage from my book, Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, 2014)?

Bayonets glistening in the hot sun, the wall of men stepped off the rise in perfect order. The cannoneers cheered as the soldiers moved through the artillery line, into the open fields.

The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the Federals sent shell after shall howling into their midst.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The shells exploded, leaving holes where the earth had been. Shells pummeled the marching men. As one man fell in the front of the line, another stepped up to take his place. Smoke billowed into a curtain of white, thick and heavy as fog, stalking them across the field.

 Still they marched on. They held their fire, waiting for the order.

 Boom! A riderless horse, wide-eyed and bloodied, emerged from the cloud of smoke. It screamed in panic as another shell exploded.

Boom! All around lay the dead and dying. There seemed more dead than living now. Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood.

Boom! They very earth shook with the terrible hellfire.

Still they marched on.
Long sentences can be very effective to heighten emotional drama even as it slows the action down. In another example from Girls of Gettysburg: “Dawn broke still as pond water, and the army was already on the march, moving east along the Pike. As the bloody sun broke free of the horizon, the mist rose, too. The air heated steadily, another hellfire day.”

But, as the cliché reminds us, there can be too much of a good thing (except chocolate, of course). A string of short sentences can become a choppy ride. Like riding in a Model T Ford. Stuck in the wrong gear. Chug! Chug! Chug! Going over a rutted road. It bounces. And bounces. And bounces. My head hurts. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Stop. This. Car. And. Let. Me. Out.

 And no one wants to read a sentence that never ends, one that goes on and on and on and on, in some stream-of-consciousness rambling of fanciful swooping and looping and drooping that serves no purpose other than to satisfy the writer’s ego.

If the period is the stop sign, then the comma is the speed bump, says Lukeman. It controls the ebb and flow of the sentence’s rhythm. A comma connects and divides. In fact, as Lukeman warns, it’s downright schizophrenic. It divides the sentences into parts, clarifying its meaning, or in some cases, changing its meaning. Consider this favorite Facebook meme: A woman, without her man, is nothing. But, with a wave of the magic punctuation wand, it changes to this: A woman: without her, man is nothing.

A comma connects smaller ideas to create a more powerful idea: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Everyone has heard the saying, placing a comma is like taking a breath in a sentence. But a sentence with too many commas sends the reader into hyperventilation. And one with not enough commas forces the reader to hold her breath unto she turns blue. So, where do you place your comma?

There are a thousand handbooks on punctuation, each offering a thousand rules on where and when to place a comma, and each rule has a thousand exceptions. Perhaps the better question is: what is your purpose in using the comma? As a stylistic devise, I offer that it’s one of the most emotive punctuation marks because it mimics the character’s state of mind. For example, from my Girls of Gettysburg, you know this poor character is frightened: “Weezy sang, quiet as a cricket’s whisper. But in the tiny room, in the dark, it seemed loud enough.”

Somewhere between the period and the comma is the semi-colon. This is the mediator, says Lukeman, and “a bridge between the two worlds.” With a style all its own, the semi-colon connects two thematically-related ideas while maintaining the independence of both.
 It can be used to smooth out the choppy ride found in a string of short sentences, or give a breath of air in a long-winded sentence.

However, the semi-colon doesn’t always play well with others. It competes for attention with the comma. Because a semi-colon slows the action down, the effect of a comma and, most especially the period, is minimized.

And then there are colons. Colons are just plain bossy. They don't like to share. They especially don’t like semi-colons, despite the similar names. With a flair for the dramatic, colons are the master magicians: they reveal. (<See what I did there?) Colons hold the audience in suspense, says Lukeman. Then, at the right moment, the writer pulls the curtain back to reveal some fundamental truth of the narrative. Remember the Facebook meme example? A woman: without her, man is nothing.

But too often misunderstood and underappreciated, the colon tends to be reduced to mundane tasks, like signaling lists and offering summaries.

Then, of course, there are the dashes, ellipses, slashes and myriad of other punctuation marks. Alas, I’ve run out of space. In the end, as Noah Lukeman says, punctuation is organic, a complex universe subject to the writer’s purpose and personal tastes. What works in one narrative doesn’t work in every narrative. And for every rule, there is an exception. At its core, however, punctuation is a journey of self-awareness and reveals as much about the writer as it does about the writing.

For more information, you might find these useful:

Boyle, Toni and K.D. Sullivan. The Gremlins of Grammar. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Lukeman, Noah. A Dash of Style. NY: WW Norton, 2006.

Bobbi Miller

 “Punctuation in skilled hands is a remarkably subtle system of signals, signs, symbols and winks that keep readers on the smoothest road. Too subtle, perhaps: Has any critic or reviewer ever praised an author for being a master of punctuation, a virtuoso of commas? Has anyone every won a Pulitzer, much less a Nobel, for elegant distinctions between dash and colon, semi-colon and comma? ~ Rene J. Cappon, Associated Press Guide to Punctuation



JoAnn Early Macken said...

Enlightening and entertaining, Bobbi--I love your examples!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Terrific, insightful, illuminating post, Bobbi!
Thank you. :)

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you so much, JoAnn and Esther! I consider your kind words very high praise indeed!!

Rebecca C said...

I think I must have been a colon in another life--very bossy. ;) A very fun and informative post. Thanks, Bobbi!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Great article. Thanks!

Bobbi Miller said...

Rebecca: You so funny!! Thank you for the smiles!

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank YOU, Carla!

Damon Dean said...

Great post, Bobbi. Oh my--I'm suddenly so conscious of that comma there. And that hyphen.
I am a punctuation addict, and I've erred on both extremes, especially with my addiction to ellipses.
Which I am struggling NOT to use between this sentence and that one.

Thanks for great insight on all the dots, dashes, and tittles that can be so vital in just the right places.

Bobbi Miller said...

And thank you, Damon! I think punctuation is an artform, often ignored except in poetry. e.e. cummings certainly had a unique understanding on how to use punctuation to create music in language.

And I like ellipses...too! said...

This is WONDERFUL--clear explanations on punctuation and I <3 the Noah Lukeman quotes. I'm going to have to save this post for reference!

April Halprin Wayland said...

FABULOUS and lyric, Bobbi; thank you!

On Mothers Day one year, I gave my literate mama this plaque:

Let's eat Grandma!
Let's eat, Grandma!
--commas save lives--

April Halprin Wayland said...

...of course I meant Fabulous and lyricAL...

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank YOU, Marcia! You would love his book. He brings such insight into the process. It's not quite the mysterious world once thought.

Bobbi Miller said...

THANK YOU for your kind words, April! And I love that example. Comma saves lives! Ha!

Yvonne Ventresca said...

A fun and informative guide!

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Yvonne!