Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What's Your Punctuation Habit?

Okay, everyone, time to talk about excessive punctuation!!!!!!!! Yeah, I’m talking about you, Facebook status posters whose emoticons have the fluctuating emotional range of a jr. high drama queen. (I’m pretty sure some people have invented emoticons for things like “angst-ridden,” “perplexedly bemused,” or “slightly beaten down by the apparent meaninglessness of life.”) I’m talking to you, fiction writer whose narrator uses punctuation marks that really should only crop up in dialogue. And I’m talking to you, college student who thinks that a colon in the title of a paper will get an automatic A.

Usually there’s some traumatic event that subconsciously attaches writers to a particular mark, and then they use it. All the time. In almost every sentence. Until you never want to see it again.

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. For the most part, though, if you use a punctuation mark more than once a double-spaced page, it might be your punctuation habit. Try editing out some of those repeats, especially if someone else has mentioned that it’s distracting. It will be hard, I know. You have deep emotional connections to that mark. But just do it. It’ll make you stronger. I promise.

There are many different nuances to the person who uses too much punctuation. Here are some common types:

The Exclamation Person: This person’s characters are prone to interjections of all kinds! Also, the narrator is shocked or excited too, even if the story is in third person! Seriously, you’d think that car chases were breaking out all over the place and every person just got a winning lottery ticket! The whole world is so stupendously exciting! You should be excited too!

The Dash Person: This one is me—I seem to think that dashes make everything better, probably because I write with my ear instead of my eyes. In other words, I use dashes to represent the pauses and different emphasis that you could hear in spoken dialogue. For some reason, sarcasm especially seems to accumulate dashes—for those nice, cutting twists at the end of sentences. The dash is kind of like a knife that stabs the rest of it home.

The Semicolon Person: This is the more intellectual cousin of the Dash Person. This person also frequently uses phrases like “one must” and “albeit.” (Incidentally, I love this word and have waited years for a paper where it is the perfect word to be used and could not be substituted with anything else. I have not found it.) Everyone knows that a semi-colon automatically makes any kind of work more academic. It’s more than just joining two related sentences; it’s making a commentary on the interconnectedness of our shallow human attempts to convey thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way. (See, wasn’t that impressive?)

The Parentheses Person: As you can see from the short paragraph above, I tend to be this person too (although I hope that, in most cases, the thoughts I put in parentheses are truly parenthetical). What consigns a thought to the brackets of exclusion? Well, one reason is that they’re somewhat random. They break the flow of thought like an aside in a play where the character addresses the audience. I am a random person. Gumballs. See? So my use of parentheses is totally justified.

The Rhetorical Question Person: Is this kind of punctuation more common in non-fiction? Do authors think that these kinds of sentences are more interactive? Is this really about punctuation itself or more of a content issue?

The Comma Person: This, person was apparently never taught, that commas do not need to separate dependent clauses, and puts in way too many. I have, at times, been a person like this, myself. Or in contrast you could be that person who doesn’t use commas ever because an English teacher kept deleting them and no one ever could figure out why except that maybe the teacher was an insane comma-hating radical so every sentence becomes a run-on and you can’t blame anyone because it’s related to a traumatic experience in that person’s past.

There might be more than I listed, although I have yet to see any writing that sprinkles in too many asterisks or single quotes. But there’s a first for everything….

Oh yeah. The ellipse person who has everything trail off into a void of nothingness, sometimes for no reason at all! I guess I’ll have to get to that guy another time….

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