Sunday, 5 September 2010

Punctuation the Music of Language? The ART of PUNCTUATION or A DASH of STYLE by Noah Lukeman

This post was first published March 9th, 2009.
Punctuation is not my strong point. I often hesitate before placing a comma in a sentence.

No, I mean ...

Punctuation is not my strong point and I often hesitate before inserting a comma into a sentence.

Or, maybe I mean ...

Punctuation isn't my strong point; I often hesitate before reaching for a comma.

I think you get my drift.

Here, Noah Lukeman writes almost lovingly about that set of signs and symbols, those indispensable marks, which, when inserted into a text, elucidate or obfuscate meaning and expression.

There are hundreds of books dealing with punctuation. What sets this volume apart is that it is aimed squarely at writers; as is set out in the introduction:

'This is not a book for grammarians ... This book is for the audience
that needs it the most and yet for whom, ironically, a punctuation book
has yet to be written: creative writers.

When I read a (usually unpublished) writer declaring, 'Punctuation? No dealbreaker. The line-editor will correct it,' I often bring to mind a macho type, pointing Percy at the porcelain, missing the pot and saying, 'No worries, I'll have the missus clean it up.'

Laziness? Arrogance? Ineptitude? Or an uncouth mix of all three?

Setting aside apostrophes and slashes, Lukeman ably, and entertainingly, takes us through the most important marks, illustrating his points with telling examples, pointing up underuse and overuse, and setting us end-of-chapter exercises.

There's a lot of food for thought here:

'Why did Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver lean heavily on the full stop? Why did William Faulkner eschew it? Why did Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville rely on the semicolon? Did Emily Dickinson embrace the dash, Gertrude Stein avoid the comma? How could the punctuation differ so radically between these great authors? What did punctuation add that language itself could not?'

Such is tempered with practical, no-nonsense suggestions for improving one's work.

  • Ever wondered what your use of paragraph and section breaks reveals about you?
  • Do you want to know what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about the exclamation mark?
  • Ever thought why Cormac McCarthy avoids commas?

Excellent stuff. Every writer of English and American English should keep a copy within easy reach of the desk.

The U.S. edition is titled:  A Dash of Style and is published by W.W. Norton & Co.
The U.K. edition is titled: The  Art of Punctuation and is published by Oxford University Press.

If you're curious to learn what Lukeman writes about the period (or full-stop) go here for Part One, here for Part Two, here for Part Three and, finally, here for Part Four of  an extract drawn from the U.S. paperback edition, posted on the very informative Writers Store website.

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