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I was taught punctuation by the rules, but when I tried to teach adults that way–guess what–it didn’t work! Not only did they not improve when measured by standard tests, they also didn’t understand why published writers were not following those often irritating rules. What does a teacher say…”Don’t question why, just do it?” That doesn’t work, at least not with adults.

Reasoning with adult students about what punctuation does for their writing frees them to make punctuation their palette, not their yoke. An article published in 1995 by the Boise State Univ. Writing Center suggests thinking of punctuation as a system with levels that allow a writer to choose a sentence’s effect by choosing the degree of separation and emphasis between its parts.

Style manuals and handbooks “have it all wrong,” argues John Dawkins in a recent article in College Composition and Communication. A startling claim, but Dawkins is serious. All the manuals, he points out, tend to fragment punctuation into an incoherent body of instruction by dealing with each mark separately: a section for commas, a section for semicolons, a section for colons, and so forth, each with its own set of rules for proper use. They fail to present punctuation as a hierarchical system, one that Dawkins calls “surprisingly simple. . . [one] that enables writers to achieve important — even subtle — effects.” [retrieved from http://www.boisestate.edu/wcenter/ww81punc.htm%5D

Now here’s an example by Dawkins found in Noden’s Image Grammar:

Maximum Separation (the period, question mark, and exclamation mark)
Example: I looked up. And there she stood!

Medium Separation, Emphatic (the dash)
Example: I looked up—and there she stood.

Medium Separation, Anticipatory (the colon)
Example: I looked up: And there she stood.

Medium Separation (the semicolon)
Example: I looked up; and there she stood.

Minimum Separation (the comma)
Example: I looked up, and there she stood.

Zero Separation
Example: I looked up and there she stood.

To add a little mystery, we might insert an ellipsis before the punch line; then again, some may prefer to trade the ellipsis for a colon or even an em dash…


Comments on: "Punctuation: Emphasis, Clarity, Mystery" (7)

  1. Great suggestion and link!
    I already sense it helps to free me up to write more in my own – rather intuitive – style.
    (How about this one to start with? 😉 )


    • I’m sorry for this belated response, Andre; your comment was put in spam. I know not why and didn’t know enough to check spam on my blog, even though I do on my email. Shame on me! Thank you for the supportive message and the link to a marvelous poem! Come again, please.


  2. I really love this site, Joyce. I’m so glad you gave me a link.


  3. I got your message from linked in about critiquing your blog but when I clicked it just sent me back to Linked In -and I can’t find you! So I did my own search and here I am. I want you to know that I love love love your website! As soon as you get on it, it is soothing and the colors are wonderful. Not too busy, not boring, you have done a wonderful job! Except that link didn’t work – hopefully it was just me! I’d love to have you look at my site and/or sites. Blessings to you Joyce! Maybe we can link somehow?


  4. Nice and easy. Not like rifling through the Chicago Manual of Style!


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