On Punctuation

I was never taught how to punctuate. I dimly remember being told some time (in First Grade maybe?) that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, but after that nada. No helpful hints about punctuation in primary school or high school or university. I did encounter style manuals in uni but skipped past the fifty-page sections on uses of the semi-colon and went straight to the how to do footnotes and bibliographies.

Shortly after Scott read my first story, he shared his horror at my punctuation skills, or lack thereof. I wasn’t as taken aback as I would’ve been two years earlier, but since I had foolishly taken to hanging out with lots of writers, and, even dumber, started showing them my feeble efforts, I’d been getting an earful about the infelicities of my punctuation. (Thanks Karen, Kelly, and especially Richard, who actually examined my laptop to check whether there was a functioning comma key.)

I admit I’d been surprised by their horror at my commas. At that stage I was way educated—twelve years of primary and secondary plus two university degrees. No one had ever told me I couldn’t punctuate before. At first, I figured it must be a USA versus Australia thing. They spelled differently to me; it figured they’d punctuate differently too. But then I got similar comments from some Australian and Canadian professional writer and editor friends. It appeared that I really did have comma issues, though it also became clear that everyone had a different solution in mind.

Scott was the one to sit me down and explain how it works (or, at least, how it works with English in the USA). I learned the difference between an en-dash (-) and an em-dash (—), the uses of the semi-colon and suspended hyphenation, and above all else how to distinguish a run-on sentence in desperate need of that capital letter and full stop from a long, elegaic sentence a la Jane Austen or Dorothy Dunnett.

He announced recently that he’d had little hope at first, thinking I was simply retarded when it came to punctuation (as many people, including many excellent writers whom I won’t embarrass by naming, are), and was much relieved to discover that I was, in fact, educable.

Scott used a red pen and lots of withering sarcasm. I’m not sure it’s a method I’d recommend, as it does lead to many tears, but he has managed to steer me along an unbelievably steep punctuation learning curve. I figure I’m about halfway there. Possibly. (But feel free to email me drawing my attention to any punctuating infelicities you may notice.)

Of course, a large part of my becoming a better punctuater (or should I say less bad?) was actually re-reading what I wrote more than once or twice. I used to think the aim was to get published as quickly as possible, so why waste time rewriting? The concept of polishing, multiple rewritings, and not attempting publication until what I’d written was good as I could make it, had escaped me for many years (and, oddly, so too did publication).

I have discovered that my lack of education on the punctuation front is by no means unique, and my whole punctuation ordeal—er, wonderful learning experience—has left me wondering why punctuation isn’t taught anywhere except on the job as a copy editor or proof reader. Why don’t schools (at any level) push beyond capital letter, full stop? Why for that matter have schools stopped teaching grammar? The two are inextricably linked—if you don’t know where the clause boundary is how are you going to know where to put the comma?

If any of my gentle readers have any answers to this quandry or brilliant campaign suggestions for improving punctuation everywhere, let me know. It’s time we made the world a safer, better-punctuated place.

San Miguel de Allende, 22 February 2004