Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Few More Pips on Punctuation

Over the course of the summer my writing has taken a back seat to assorted distractions (thankfully, though, it’s still in the vehicle, just snoozing in the back for a while). However, my faithful Eats, Shoots & Leaves calendar has continued to enhance my understanding of several punctuation marks that I expect to need when writing gets back into the driver's seat, including the colon (:), semicolon (;), dash (--), and exclamation mark (!). And with her usual dry humour, Lynne Truss has added interest to an otherwise less than uproarious subject. Thus I will use today’s blog to bring you up to date, too-–or at least up to the end of August on that calendar. And read fast, please. Given what is happening in modern communication, the subtleties of punctuation, she says, are threatened with being wiped out entirely.

July started with the note that the colon and semicolon have been used in English well before 1700, and that confusion has reigned over which to use when ever since. Sound familiar? Do you know when to use one and not the other? Well, here’s the scoop: the colon and semicolon propel you forward in a sentence towards more information; however, while “the semicolon lightly propels you in any direction related to the foregoing (“Whee! Surprise me!”), the colon nudges you along lines subtly laid down.” Now, as far as I’m concerned, there’s a perfect example of those pesky subtleties that have caused so much confusion.

Apparently confusion did not hold sway with Mr. George Bernard Shaw (you know, the Pygmalion fellow?). Ms. Truss gave several examples of his opinions on this topic, including a reference to a letter he wrote to T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia, that is?) in 1924 “ticking him off for his over-use of colons in the manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” He accused Lawrence of ‘throwing colons about “with an unhinged mind”.’ Obviously Mr. Shaw felt strongly about the subject. He noted that when two statements are “placed badly in dramatic apposition”, use a colon; and when you desire an abrupt “pull-up”, or when the second statement reaffirms, explains or illustrates the first, use a colon. Fortunately for me, Ms. Truss provided examples. She noted that a colon is nearly always preceded by a complete sentence, and in its simplest usage it rather theatrically announces what is to come. To illustrate dramatic apposition, she gave “Man proposes: God disposes.”, and referred to the colon in this example as a kind of fulcrum between two antithetical or oppositional statements. For the pull-up with a nice surprise she quoted: “I find fault with only three things in this story of yours, Jenkins: the beginning, the middle and the end.” (I thought you might really appreciate that last one.)

Further information on colons indicate that they introduce the part of a sentence that exemplifies, restates, elaborates, undermines, explains or balances the preceding part. (Whew!) They also have formal introductory roles: they start lists (especially lists using semicolons–like this one); they set off book and film sub-titles from the main titles; and conventionally, colons separate dramatic characters from dialogue.

The semicolon wasn’t nearly so interesting in comparison, but I was reminded that its main place is between two related sentences where there is no conjunction, such as “and” or “but”. It seems that “the tendency of contemporary writers” is to use a dash instead of a semicolon because, apparently, you can’t use it wrongly, a trait Ms. Truss calls “an uncommon virtue” for a punctuation mark. I’m not convinced of that, but... At any rate she notes that you should reserve the dash for occasions when the connection is a lot less direct so it “can act as a bridge between bits of fractured sense.” (And, although she doesn’t cover it, another occasion for the dash is in dialogue when the spoken word itself is fractured, i.e. interrupted before the speaker finishes enunciating.) In her words, the sub-text of a semicolon is, “Now this is a hint. The elements of this sentence, although grammatically distinct, are actually elements of a single notion....” She also indicates that linking words, such as “however”, “nevertheless”, “also”, “consequently” and “hence” require a semicolon, and gave the example of “He woke up in his own bed; nevertheless, he was OK”.

In the discussion of the exclamation mark, Ms. Truss says Victor Hugo, when he wanted to know how Les Miserables was selling, reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simple inquiry “?” and received the expressive reply “!” (I wish!), which is an excellent illustration of how that symbol changes the tone of voice of a communication. She notes that the exclamation mark is known as the exclamation point in America (a subtle difference that, but not really a confusing one, hmm?), and that it’s “known in the newspaper world as a screamer, a gasper, a startler or (sorry) a dog’s cock” (that’s a new one for me!). She also reminisced about the standard keyboard of a manual typewriter in the 1970s: there was no exclamation mark (or point, for that matter) so you had to type a full stop (a period, to me) then back-space and type an apostrophe on top of it. (Anyone else besides me remember that? Anyone?)

Exclamation marks are used in involuntary ejaculations, used to salute or invoke, used to exclaim or admire, used for drama, used to deflect potential misunderstanding of irony, used to make a commonplace sentence more emphatic, and, if a writer is not careful, can be overused to the point where the effect is like shouting (or putting an email in all caps). In that case, less is more. ‘Nuff said!


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Excellent, excellent survey of some crucial bits of punctuation, Molli. I do so love these posts. I think I'm one of those writers who has gravitated toward the em-dash for connecting thoughts--especially when it lets me go off on a tangent ;)--in my writing. A few more semi-colons have crept into recent chapters, although hopefully in good use.

I tend to avoid exclamation marks at all cost in proper writing, unless a character is shouting or having some sort of internal-monologue-fit, but in non-formal settings like blogs and email, I use more than my one-a-year quota (another bit of wisdom from that grammarian english prof I know I've mentioned in past punctuation posts). Generally speaking, I try to keep in mind a bit of advice I heard somewhere or another, that if you have to insert an exclamation mark to make something sound exciting, loud, or the like, it isn't. It's the writing that needs to be changed, not the punctuation. Helps keep most of those dog's cocks in check ;)

And speaking of exclamations and irony, have these unique bits of typography come up in your calendar? The interrobang and the irony mark. Personally, the prospect of inserting an irony mark rather seems like it would undercut the purpose of making an ironic statement. Half the fun is if someone doesn't get it :p

Janet C. said...

Great post, Molli! Like Hayley, I overuse exclamation marks/points in blog posts and e-mails(I believe Karyn confessed to that a while back, too). And colons and semi-colons - yeesh, never did get the hang of those. Your explanation and the examples from your daily calendar make it much easier; however, I will probably stay clear if I can (ooh, did I get it right?).

Two things: I do remember the pain of creating an exclamation marks/points on an old typewriter, and I'd love your opinion on the demise of punctuation. You touched on it in your first paragraph - do you think the 'puter language will have an evolutionary effect on punctuation the same way I see it changing spelling rules?

Helena said...

Like the first two punctuation aficionados (good thing I checked; otherwise, would have spelled it wrong!), I always look forward to your posts on the rise and fall of the little marks that I believe are crucial to good writing.

And you have my permission to pick apart that mishmash of a sentence.

I remember very well "making" exclamation marks on the old typewriters. I am also acutely aware that I am starting to fall over the edge into overuse. I read somewhere that emails seem to beg for exclamation marks, so I oblige! Makes them somewhat meaningless, don't you think?

Lynne Truss has a special place on my bookshelf. Of course, I mean her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves occupies a prominent place in my reference corner. (Almost as important as the sheet entiteld Computer Codes and Shortcuts that Hayley sent to us after the summer retreat. It's like a bible to me.) My edition of Eats ... has a foreword by Frank McCourt which is hilarious. (A tip of the hat to the dear departed man. May he rest in peace with no more worries about whether the period goes inside or outside the parenthesis/bracket.)

Thanks, Molli. And all the rest of the commenters.

Captain Hook said...

*happily admits to being a grammar and punctuation nerd*

So, I didn't know all the history, but the rest I did.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Molli, I don't have a problem with the colon, but I find the semicolon useless and don't use it at all.

Unfortunately, I do remember having to use the apostrophe and period during high school typing classes. sigh

I used to use the exclamation point for ... well exclamations but my CP's kept telling me it was for the decibel level of the voice only. So, I only use it now when my character is shouting. But I don't like it.

Your post seems to give me permmission to use the exclamation point as I used to see it. As showing surprise. Can this be real? Please, somebody confirm this!

Molli said...

Hayley, as always your comments and knowledge on the subject intrigue and impress me. I hadn't heard of either the interrobang or the irony mark, and enjoyed following the links to read about them. It did occur to me, too, as I read the history of them that it would spoil some of the fun, and even insult some readers by telling them how they should react rather than, as you say, getting the message across in the writing itself. I don't use many exclamation marks, but I do use dashes. In my technical writing I use colons and semicolons regularly, but not so in my popular fiction as they're not much in favour as far as I can tell with the majority of readers or editors.

Janet, as far as 'puter language affecting punctuation, yes, definitely! I think, though, that it's related more to the increased pace of life in general in modern society. We've moved from treatise to sound byte, as it were, in our communication styles (to our detriment, I believe, but so be it so far) and I think that general shift is reflected in both spoken and written language, including, of course, the punctuation "accoutrements" if you will.

Helena, I wouldn't dream of picking apart any of your sentences. Heaven knows I can mash with the best of them. I haven't seen the full version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but I can well imagine that the humour I've seen in the calendar would be repeated by anyone who had read the book when they sat down to write the forward.

Captain Hook, being a nerd of any kind can be liberating, when you think about it, but I'm not sure I'd consider you in the classification given that you knew what these marks were about.

Anita, if you haven't followed the links in Hayley's comment you might want to with respect to expressing surprise. As for giving you permission to use an exclamation mark when you're not trying to "shout", I think the rules allow for it 'historically', but current usage not so much. That's one of the more interesting facets of language, as well as one of the most frustrating: it changes, and more and more frequently of late.