Yesterday at our first Tricycle Readers meeting, we touched on the importance of punctuation. Punctuation supports and highlights meaning. The jacket of Lyn Truss’s book on English grammar shows a hand holding a smoking gun. It is titled, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. If you remove the comma – Eats Shoots and Leaves – we’re discussing the dietary habits of a panda.
Some people use too much punctuation. I have a bad habit of hitting the comma key on my keyboard whenever I pause to think; months after writing a piece of prose I’ll return to find extraneous commas littered across sentences like ink spatters. Others use too little so a sentence has to be read and reread before the context, tone and meaning is clear.
Chart songs are good for demonstrating the importance of punctuation. The voice is the narrative, the beat provides the commas, full stops and semi-colons, and the bridge or a key change heralds a new paragraph. Imagine Whitney Houston singing My Love Is Your Love without a pause. Readers don’t have performers to bring books to life; the reader is the performer. It is their interpretation of the text that realises it. Punctuation is vital to that understanding.
Our short story this week was Katharine Mansfield’s The Doll’s House. She slips in and out of voice throughout the piece, using dots, dashes and exclamation marks to create rhythm and tone. There is a link to her story on the Group Texts page. A lot of writers don’t like exclamation marks, which Mansfield uses quite a lot to indicate raised voices, surprise, and vernacular usage. My view is that any shorthand in a story is helpful. What’s your view?