Friday, March 30, 2012

Little Language Lesson

How often do you get all excited about punctuation? Probably about as often as you say, “howdy friend”, to a root canal. Of course, you want to have your writing properly punctuated, but it can be a real drag during a sudden burst of creative energy to have to worry about whether your commas, hyphens and semi-colons are all in the right place. Still, your use of punctuation can make a big difference in the eyes of the editors you approach, and the last thing you need is bad punctuation distracting from your work and branding you as a newbie.

Although punctuation rules are changing all the time, don’t let that notion release a floodgate of questionable practices and sabotage what you know deep down to be proper.  Then again, you may think that since you’re the one crafting the story, you should be able to punctuate in your own way, as a sort of style stamp. Ask yourself if you would do that with other aspects of your writing, say, spelling. You wouldn’t begin a letter “Deer Sis” simply because you like Bambi, and your sister reminds you of a little fawn. That would be a ridiculous bending of the rules and would serve no purpose. It’s far better to follow the basic rules of punctuation and show consideration for reader and editor alike.

As an example, take a look at these identical sentences with their distinct separations.

We had one dilemma; only Teddy could understand how to fix the slingshot.     
We had one dilemma only: Teddy could understand how to fix the slingshot.

In sentence one the semi-colon joins two complete sentences too closely related to be separated by a period. There’s a dilemma—Teddy is the only one who understands how to fix the slingshot. In sentence two what follows the colon explains what precedes it. Teddy can understand how to fix the slingshot and we infer that’s a bad thing because Teddy has homicidal tendencies. Your reader needs to know which it is.

Next, check these two out for apostrophe use. Are they both correct?

The dog wagged its tail.
It’s late and we have to go home.

Both are correct. The word ‘its’ shows possession in the first sentence.  In the second ‘it’s’ is a contraction of it is. Burn that difference into your brain.

And for good measure, which of these would you prefer to read?

We had a wonderful time at the show! It was awesome! You should go sometime!
What a show—awesome! You should go sometime.

The second sentence is much easier on the eyes and conveys the same excitement as the first. Overuse of exclamation points will mark you as a beginner. 

Of all the things that writer’s have to worry about punctuation probably isn’t at the top of many lists.  A misplaced piece of punctuation here or there will not sink your boat. But it does show a certain level of professionalism when every little black dot is where it’s supposed to be, and isn’t that what we’re all shooting for? 

Image:   Free Digital Photos

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