, , , ,

photo by Gary M. Stolz, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A while back, I got an email from a critique partner entitled Punctuation Problem. Naturally, I assumed she was having problems with some gnarly punctuation. After all, what writer hasn’t wondered, at one time or another, if they should put a comma here, or a hyphen there?

Punctuation: periods, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, colons and semi-colon, ellipses, dashes, apostrophes, quotation marks. We all use them when we write. Some writers use punctuation sparingly. Others punctuate a lot. And others still punctuate a page to death. There’s no doubt that punctuation is an important part of writing. So, just how important is punctuation? Does it really matter where we put a period, or a question mark? Can’t we just sprinkle them in wherever they look good? After all, how much difference could a little comma make?

Take a look at this paragraph (the one that came in the email) then decide for yourself whether a comma can make or break a sentence.

Punctuation Problem:

“A panda walks into a cafe. The panda orders a sandwich, eats it and then

fires a gun into the air. On his way out, he tosses a badly punctuated

wildlife manual at the confused bartender and directs him to the

entry marked ‘panda.’ Whereupon the bartender reads, ‘Panda.

Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats,

Shoot, and leaves.’ “

While this paragraph doesn’t really describe the panda’s eating habits, it certainly points out the hazards of punctuating improperly. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.” (One of my favorite writing quotes.)The same thing is true for commas. A misplaced comma can make or break the meaning of your sentence.

Not sure about where those tricky commas go? If you don’t have all your punctuation rules memorized (and who does?), try reading your text out loud, pausing wherever you have a comma. If the sentence doesn’t sound, read, or interpret the way you intended, you just might have a punctuation problem.  Better yet, make sure you have at least one good English handbook in your reference library. My favorite is The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, which has an easy-to-read and easy-to-understand section on punctuation. Some other great punctuation references are: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Essentials of Englishby Hopper, Gale, Foote, and Griffith.

Do you have a favorite go-to reference for punctuation?