Punctuation for the Sake of Meaning

Gertrude Stein loves the period.  In a passage taken from a lecture called “Poetry and Grammar”, she sings the praises of the period.  She likes it because at some point you have to come to a stop. Periods “have a life of their own a necessity of their own.’

She doesn’t like commas: she feels they are servile.  They are unnecessary.  She puts semicolons and colons in the same category.  They serve no purpose.  She feels they prevent you from living an active life.  They tell you when to pause.  She doesn’t need help with her pauses.  She likes active verbs.  She likes the period.  Present.  Now.

What about the uncertainty principle? Does it bother her so much?  Hasn’t she got past Einstein? No hovering, no wavering, no irresolution…The period is quite definitive.  No going back.  No questions asked.  No doubts.  Brusk.  Determined.  American.

I don’t like periods that much.  Of course, I make compromises for print.  People do like their periods.  But in my journals, pages go by, from 3 to 6 of them, with only 3 or 4 periods.  There are lots of commas, ellipses, some question marks, some exclamation points – end paragraphs with dashes.  But very few periods.

I seem to use the period mostly when I change course: from describing a dream for 3 pages to commenting on it.  And I actually seem to use it to set off fragments.  I like fragments.  Especially in my creative writing.  Life is full of fragments.  But there is an art to fragments.  They have to make sense, that is if you’re trying to communicate.

But the idea of the period in general: the full stop;  I’m not partial to it.  How often do we come to a full stop?  Not if we can help it.  There are pauses in between, uncertainties, possibilities…Energy flows my thought to my thought, it is all fluxable…

Commas to me are gentle, a breath…ellipses are like waves of thought ebbing back into the sea…and the next thought comes flowing back in…How can I force a period into this pulsation/swaying/undulation?  And yet, a page filled with ellipses…well, it’s just hard on the eyes, and some folks like their edges sharp.  Neat.  Crisp.  Well defined.  Firm.  Clear.  Certain.

The word ‘period’ itself, is rather loaded with meaning.  But I won’t explore that right now.

In an essay called Rethinking Punctuation, John Dawkins illustrates and gives solid reasons for how “good writers” use their own judgement when it comes to punctuation.  (To qualify ‘good’ I’ll just list Annie Dillard, E.M. Forster, H.L. Mencken, James Baldwin, E.B. White (lots of first two initials in that group), George Orwell, and of course Virginia Woolf).  He became my Punctuation Daddy.

To quote him: “Most good writers, even if they know some grammar – especially if they know some grammar – dismiss the rules of handbooks and style manuals as generally irrelevant; these writers use punctuation as well as words and syntax to craft their meaning – that is, they use it rhetorically.”

I’ve always used punctuation rhetorically – for what it did for the sounds of my sentences, the reading of them, to put in the kind of pause that I meant, or no pause at all.  This didn’t always conform with the regulations, regulations that sometimes change.  And for that matter, if they change, then I can change them too.  I am someone who thinks about writing, and who reads, and writes. So I am making informed decisions about when and how I punctuate.  As long as I know what the basic function of a punctuation mark is, I say I can be as creative with it as I wish, or conform to edict, if I wish.

I use punctuation for meaning.  Punctuation is text of a kind:  To me, it is a movement, a note-ation. It is like dance notation, musical notation.  I want a slow arabesque, a fermata, pianissimo…I want abrupt silence.  I ask you to pause: to take note; and to consider…

Each notation has it’s own place in the hierarchy, and the higher the place, the greater the degree of separation between the elements being separated.  Dawkins maps these degrees out: period: maximum separation; semicolon: medium separation; colon: medium separation, anticipatory; dash: medium separation, emphatic; comma: minimum separation; zero: no separation, i.e., connection.  He also notes that ‘and’ can replace commas, but might change the sense: “dogs, cats, kids”, versus “dogs and cats and kids”.

Dawkins suggests we learn to analyze our sentences as having major and minor boundaries, and choose which punctuation helps us to “achieve clarity and/or rhetorical effect.”

We’ve always been taught punctuation the way we are taught math: out of context.  Just do it like this.  Follow these rules.  So, we are not familiar with the subtlety that can be introduced into our writing with punctuation.

[This week’s Grammar Rodeo focuses on punctuation: the meanings and uses of.  Come and decide for yourself: To comma, to colon, or to question mark? Period.

Grammar Rodeo: Thursday, 4-5.  Writing Center.  Lib. 2304.

Victoria Larkin. A writing tutor, a senior: studying writing, literary theory, grammar and dance.]

published in the Cooper Point Journal  february 2007

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