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Punctuation -- Why we need it

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Example of ancient Roman text

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The earliest writing had no punctuation, in fact, often had no space between words, until around the 9th century A.D. Some Roman monuments might have centered dots between words. The terms "comma," "colon," and "period" were invented by the librarian in Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C., but the marks corresponding to these terms were different from the marks we use today, and they were not generally accepted. Even when spacing between words was used, it was haphazard, rather like spelling before printing. The hyphen was introduced around the 11th century, to indicate that word was continued on the next line, but these word breaks were not at natural syllables as they are today.

Ancient Greek manuscripts separated units of text by a horizontal line called a paragraphos, so those units came to be called "paragraphs." The policy of indenting the beginning of paragraphs was standard by the 17th century; the Greeks sometimes began paragraphs with an outdent, sometimes called a hanging indent.

In medieval manuscripts, other marks -- like section, dagger, double dagger, and others -- were used either as ornaments or to indicate citations, rather like footnotes today.

All forms of punctuation became standardized with printing, but early punctuation was more related to speaking than to reading. Rhetoric, as the study of speech, needed marks to indicate when the speaker should pause to give emphasis, and that was what early punctuation was based on, rather than being related to the logical structure of written sentences. In elementary school, we still often learn how punctuation is used by thinking of how a sentence is spoken (thus, the injunction to use a comma when you pause). After the invention of printing, grammarians developed a theory of punctuation related to structure rather than sound. While these rules of English punctuation were pretty much established by the end of the 18th century, they are not fixed in stone. Change in punctuation, however, is slower than change in word use.

Punctuation is also not the same in all languages. The quotation marks used to enclose direct quotation in English, for example, are not used by the French, who use either a dash (--) at the opening of a quotation, or angle brackets (<>) to surround it. Where English would use underlining or italics to indicate emphasis, English quotation marks are sometimes used in other languages, like Spanish.

Story credit: New York University www.nyu.edu

There seems to be a general impression among new writers, and even some of the more experienced ones, that the publisher will edit and correct the writer's punctuation. This may have been the way it was years ago, but not anymore. Publishers expect a manuscript to come to them ready for publication. This may not be the case for established writers, but for the first-time novelist, the writing must be completely free of errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

The same is true with agents; they don't have time to edit their clients' work.

I edited a story last year where there were no commas or periods at all. The author called it a stream of consciousness, but I called it being lazy.

If you want to be published, you must use punctuation and it must be correct.

When an agent reads your query or manuscript, he or she is looking for reasons to reject your story, rather than looking for reasons to accept it. After three mistakes, either in spelling, punctuation or grammar, your story will hit the slush pile.

Every writer overlooks small errors so it's good to have people who are not family or friends, proofread your story. There are people who do this for a fee, but if you join one of the on-line critique groups you'll find many writers who are willing to read your work if you'll read theirs in return. This is a good practice because many times those other writers will find mistakes other than errors in the language. For example, you might have loose ends that are not tied off before the end of the story, or the chronology of events do not add up, or perhaps you have character names so similar that the reader has trouble remembering which one is which.

You can find a list of on-line critique groups here

children working at blackboard in 1941

Photo credit: History of the Internet at at the University of San Diego history.sandiego.edu

A brief review of punctuation marks.

1. Period. Use after a complete declarative or imperative sentence.

2. Exclamation Point. Use rarely, for strong emotion or after a command.

3. Question Mark. Use for direct questions.

4. Comma. Commas can be used in either an open or closed style: Open means using only the commas that are necessary; Closed means using as many as are grammatically justifiable.

5. Semicolon. The semicolon joins independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction.

6. Colon. Use a colon to introduce, but when the phrase such as introduces, don't use a colon.

7. Hyphen. The hyphen is a short horizontal mark, usually used to join words or join prefixes or suffixes to words.

8. EM dash. The em dash is a long horizontal mark separating words--referred to by nonprofessionals as simply a "dash." It also marks a suspension of sense, a faltering in speech, a sudden change in construction, or an unexpected turn of thought.

9. EN dash. The en dash is midway in length between a hyphen and an em dash. It may not be available in all fonts. If it is not available, use a hyphen.

10. Parentheses. Use parentheses when commas aren't strong enough or em dashes aren't appropriate.

11. Brackets. Use brackets for information from other than original writer.

12. Quotation Marks. Use for direct quotations, not for indirect ones.

13. Ellipses () Use for omitted material.

For a complete explanation of each punctuation mark, go to Punctuation Rules

Written by Ariion Kathleen Brindley

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All material Copyright ariionkathleenbrindley.com 2009

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