Comma chameleon

“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”

Flaubert

 It always astounds me when writers say they’re no good at punctuation. I’ve heard it – well, not exactly a lot, but enough for it to strike me. I mean, I’m no grammarian; I’m barely conscious of dangling modifiers and wouldn’t recognise a past-participle if it slapped me in the face. But punctuation? Surely that’s what writing’s all about.

There are a few things here. First there’s the basic rules. What a comma, what a colon, what an exclamation mark actually does. I’m not concerned with that – everyone who calls themselves a writer knows these things. If not, a good proof-reader, paid for or donating time, can sort you out – and this is precisely what people must do if they’re not confident. Nothing makes you seem more of an amateur than by misusing a comma.

Commas are, by the way, the most delicate, beautiful and abused of all punctuation marks. Semi-colons are more robust; they can take it, the little sluts.

But the heart of writing is in punctuation. Punctuation creates a writer’s style. Punctuation is the art. Words? Pah! Words are mere fripperies, mere ornamentation. Punctuation’s the invisible, the unnoticed; it’s the bits that only draw attention to themselves if misused. These little, almost ethereal, blobs of ink give a writer their voice. They control pace, feel, atmosphere; tell you when to breath and when to hurtle onwards, when to whisper, when to shout. What are there, eight basic punctuation marks? Add in paragraph breaks – another key weapon in the writer’s arsenal – and you have the masters of the writing world.

You’re waiting for examples, aren’t you? Damn. I knew it’d come to this. Do you know how hard it is to come up with a good example at short notice? Well, here’s a paragraph from Night Shift, rewritten and replacing all the different punctuations with full stops. I think you’ll agree its pretty bad.

I tried to keep my companions in view. My eyes were watering badly. It was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements in my peripheral vision. I prayed it was them. The last thing I wanted was to be alone right now. I felt a sharp pain over my left eye. A piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask. I brushed it aside. I screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

But using short snappy sentences has its place in writing. It can create tension. It leaves blunt information. Has a sort of deadening effect. Can be very useful if you want to create that feeling. Often used in pure action setups.

I tried to keep my companions in view, but my eyes were watering badly and it was hard enough to stay on course; I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision, and I prayed it was them: the last thing I wanted was to be alone right now – and then I felt a sharp pain over my left eye, a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask: I brushed it aside, then screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

Doesn’t work with commas all the way through. I tried it and it’s just too poor to bother showing. The version above barely scrapes it; this too is pretty bad. A mix of commas, dashes, colons and semi-colons just about keep it going, even though it’s something of a stretch. Why would you want to do this? Well, long, flowing sentences are suited for dream-like sections, where purple-prose can flow and twist and draw out poetic beauty the likes of which I am singularly failing to demonstrate.

The version I went with, by the way, goes like this…

I tried to keep my companions in view but my eyes were watering badly and it was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision, and I prayed it was them; the last thing I wanted was to be alone right now. I felt a sharp pain over my left eye; a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask. I brushed it aside, then screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

In almost all cases a middle-line is called for. And varying the style is something you’ll do instinctively as you write, as you feel the ebb and flow and the pace of the scene you’re working on. Just – just believe me, punctuation matters. Use it to indicate hesitation, awkward silences, breathlessness, eager enthusiasm, naivety. Panic! Patience.

Here’s another version that’d probably work:

I tried to keep my companions in view but my eyes were watering badly. It was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision; I prayed it was them. The last thing I wanted was to be alone right now.

    A sharp pain over my left eye – a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask.

    I brushed it aside: screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

Write Chandler-like action scenes with your short staccato-ness. Write prose like Pratchett with clauses and sub-clauses and a rolling flow. Grammar is intrinsically linked, of course, but don’t forget – please don’t forget – the role of those humble spots of ink that make or break your work.

Wanna be a writer? Learn the art of punctuation.

Oh, and exclamation marks should only ever be used in conversation, and even then only one per chapter, max. Thank you. No need to shout, we’re right here.

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6 thoughts on “Comma chameleon

  1. Well, those with poor grammar are unfortunately in good company. Even the BBC seems to be sprinkling commas across their articles randomly these days…. Nothing more annoying! Grammar seems to be a free-for-all these days.

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    • It’s astonishing where bad writing can pop up these days, although I’d suggest this is as much a consequence of a lack of time/editing as anything else. If everything has to be done now, now, now, it’s no wonder that some bad stuff gets through

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  2. Pingback: But, seriously | A Writer's Life

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