Monday, October 11, 2010

Punctuation with Van Gundy

So The Other Van Gundy put this up as part of his comments on my post on writing advice.

"What makes a semicolon, em dash, or colon any fancier than a comma or period? They're just different kinds of pauses. Seems like bad advice; I wouldn't want any part of the toolbox off-limits due to perceived fanciness."

I started to reply, when I realized that I was generating a blog post rather than a comment, so here we go. Please note that this isn't a slam. I'm glad Van Gundy brought this up, because I wasn't clear. And yes, I'm going to use Van Gundy's comment as an example of what I'm talking about. I'm not doing it to be a wiseass, Van Gundy. You're obviously a decent writer, and you weren't grossly discourteous or anything.

But you were a little more sure of your position than was warranted.

Here's what I'm getting. First, I get the impression you thought I was advising against the use of anything but periods and commas. Not at all, buddy. I suggested doing an exercise involving strictly avoiding them because I was dealing with a manuscript that had problems with the punctuation, and the problems fell into a pattern I've seen over and over again.

And my use of the term 'fancy' was one that's clearly subject to misinterpretation. Let me explain.

Those forms of punctuation are fancy because they have much more specialized uses than periods or commas. There are specific circumstances under which they are appropriate, and if they are used outside those circumstances they're clumsy and distracting to the reader. Worse; they can reduce a writer's narrative credibility.

When you wrote, "They're just different kinds of pauses," you should have left out the just. They are different kinds of pauses, and they have different effects, and if you use them injudiciously? Your writing will suffer. The colon, the semi-colon, and the dash all set up a sense of anticipation in the reader. They are a message that the phrase that follows will have an immediate and dramatic impact on the phrase just read.

The ellipsis, on the other hand, says that the reader should take a moment to ponder what has just been said...

If you use a high density of these kinds of punctuation, you are in effect giving the reader a series of stage directions, and reading becomes a very different experience. This can be done properly -- may I draw the brilliant works of Avram Davidson to your attention? he does this beautifully -- but it is a feat for a master.

When I say that misuse of these punctuation marks costs you credibility with readers, it's because each of them issues an order, and makes a promise. As an example, a semi-colon primes the reader to expect a close enough relationship so that the phrase following the semi-colon should make the phrase preceding it take on new meaning. Overuse of these variant punctuations makes the manuscript more tiring to read.

So now I'm gonna be a dick, Van. Honestly, what you wrote makes me think that I probably wouldn't bother making that particular note on one of your manuscripts. But the particular sentence in which I think I've located an error is irresistible. Sorry, Van.

"Seems like bad advice; I wouldn't want any part of the toolbox off-limits due to perceived fanciness."

As a reader, that seems flat and anticlimactic to me, specifically because of the use of the semi-colon. The second phrase doesn't add anything to the first. It repeats it. Let's see.

"Seems like bad advice. I wouldn't want any part of the toolbox off-limits due to perceived fanciness."

I think that reads more strongly. The second phrase seems like clarification rather than repetition. This is a very mild example, and is a matter of taste. I can see how someone might think the sense of flow in the first version was nice.

They'd be defensibly wrong, but wrong. If the full meaning, including emotional tone, is the same, simpler phrasing is always to be preferred.

I mean, that was me being picky. But when you find manuscripts where there are more semi-colons than periods, where there are multiple dashes inside of a paragraph, and then you compare them to manuscripts where all variant punctuation is avoided? The simpler punctuation is more readable, more graceful, and carries more meaning. To a stunning degree. If you do the comparison, you will not debate. You may have a personal fondness for convoluted prose -- and I do -- but if you want to communicate, speak as simply as you possibly can while still saying what you mean.

And that goes for punctuation as much as anything else.