Sentences, Style, and Semicolons
Growing up, I went to quite a distinctive general practitioner. Perhaps he stood out as unique to me as his southern drawl carried through the hallway, under the crack in the appointment room, into my Seattle-born, nine-year-old ears. He’d always greet me with, “Well hello there little lady. How’re you doing?” He was an excellent doctor and saw me through the swine flu, a lung infection, and a broken wrist.
But his southern drawl isn’t the first thing that I remember whenever he randomly pops into my head. My mind immediately drifts to his waiting room. Stuffed birds and deer lined the walls, staring me down as if condemning my sickness. The waiting room was the closest thing to a hunting lodge I’ve ever witnessed. The green and brown chairs blended into the forest wallpaper. I always picture a fireplace with a crackling fire in my mind, but I doubt there actually was one. It all certainly captured my attention, even with the chills and a high fever.
By now you’re probably wondering what my childhood doctor and his oh-so-southern waiting room has anything to do with writing. It’s because writing, like any art form, has a lot of similarities to decorating a room. Whether we like it or not, interior design involves much more than throwing a couch and two chairs in a room and calling it good. A room without décor doesn’t feel homey. Sure, it can get the job done, functionally speaking. But without picture frames, pillows, curtains, knick-knacks, and rugs, a room feels stale. It lacks flare. Or if you have all of those things and use them poorly—such as using ratty movie posters and an old flag as wall art (looking at you, college freshmen)—a room feels haphazard, stressful even.
Writing is the same. We can either create a piece that invites readers in to stay a while, to make themselves comfortable. Or our writing can confuse, stress out, or bother readers so much that they’d rather not come by again, thank you very much. As you know, thanks to your ninth-grade English teacher, welcoming writing involves strong nouns and verbs, varied sentence structure, and showing rather than telling. While all of those fabulous rules are critical, there’s an aspect of writing that is often overlooked. It’s one I deal with the most as Fathom’s copyeditor and it’s akin to hanging a stunning portrait on the wall or organizing your books by color (yes, I’m one of those people).
Without good, strong, smart punctuation, your writing will suffer.
Oh dear, I’ve just set off your boring alarm, haven’t I?
Stay with me—I promise this article won’t turn into a grammar lesson. (Though wasn’t that a happy little em dash?)
I’m not advocating for you to become a stodgy, glasses-at-the-end-of-your-nose grammarian who calls people out on Twitter for not using the Oxford comma (which you should always use, please and thank you). But I do think knowing what it means to comma splice—and to know why you should avoid it at all costs—will improve your writing.
Punctuation Tells a Story
Like I said, this column isn’t going to turn into a chapter of Grammar for Dummies, so don’t stress out about the comma splicing just yet. I’m not about to list three punctuation rules you must always apply to your writing or quick tips to make your copyeditor smile. Instead, I want to draw your attention to the often-overlooked effect good, well-placed punctuation can have on your writing. I hope you’ll be inspired to see punctuation as a powerful part of your writing—because it is. When it’s bad or confusing or boring, your reader will notice. When it’s not, most will overlook it, yes, but that means you’ve done your job. Your readers have settled down, made themselves at home.
Good punctuation can draw you into a story. It can give you the feel for a character—his thoughts, his motivations, his emotions. Punctuation gives narrative rhythm. It can ebb and flow with long prose and then stop you short with a quippy sentence. Take the first paragraph from Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
I like to think I know what death is. I like to think it’s something I can look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today’s my birthday.
In this paragraph, we’re in Jojo’s head—one of the main characters of the story. Right away, we can feel his determination to impress Pop, not only because of the words we read, but also because of the way they’re organized and punctuated. Notice how the third sentence runs and pauses, runs and pauses, until we hit a semicolon that sets apart “that’s how Pop walks.” We can sense his beating heart as the sentences match its rhythm. The fourth sentence ties several ideas together with commas, all supporting the feeling we sense of Jojo’s quiet, yet nervous, determination to make Pop proud. The last two sentences pique our interest like clickbait. We want to know more. Blood on a birthday?
We learn a lot about Jojo and how he perceives his relationship with Pop. Jesmyn Ward shows us through her word choice, yes, but also her punctuation, that Jojo is ready to become a man in Pop’s eyes.
Words aren’t all that draw readers into your writing, whether they realize it or not. A seemingly random semicolon can show your readers as much as the words that follow it do. Wielded with intention, punctuation can cause your reader to curl up into your story and stay a while.
Masterful punctuation isn’t simply for the novelists—it applies to nonfiction too. N.D. Wilson in his book Death by Living proves that boring writing and nonfiction do not have to mix.
No matter how trendy it might be when people say it, life is a story. All of history is a story. Every particle has its own story trailing backward until it reaches the first Word of the One and Three, and all of those trailing threads—those many—are woven into the one great ever-growing divinely spoken narrative.
It’s not hard to find N.D. Wilson’s point here. All of life is a story—he says it plainly in the first and second sentences. But the third sentence is the one I want you to notice. He could have stopped it after “Three” and started anew with “All of those.” Instead, he links the two ideas together with a comma and “and” to keep the image alive in our minds. We weave a mental blanket together—as if the sentence itself has formed its own mini story, proving Wilson’s point by simply existing.
Then we reach the string of adjectives before “narrative.” This list would normally be comma city, but it’s not. Instead, the lack of punctuation blends the adjectives together to punch up the noun. Wilson wants us to understand the importance and complexity of the story of life, so he shows us by marching his descriptors in a line like a parade. As with Ward’s writing, Wilson draws us into his writing—but this time, it’s not a story he’s inviting us into, but an idea.
Be Free and Punctuate
Now, I might have read a little far into the analysis of Ward’s and Wilson’s work. They probably didn’t set each period or comma with intense precision. They most likely flexed a well-practiced punctuation muscle as they wrote—and their editors might have made a change or two. But it’s undeniable that punctuation matters in both of these pieces of writing. Without it, we wouldn’t feel Jojo’s eagerness nor understand the breadth of life’s narrative.
Before I close, I want to be clear: Like the budding painter who learns every painting technique in detail before venturing into new territory, writers must learn and practice proper grammar and punctuation before breaking the mold. As you master the craft of writing, you can begin to break the rules. Cormac McCarthy—who notoriously uses as little punctuation as possible—didn’t become the slayer of commas and quotation marks overnight. It takes time. And practice.
So where do I leave you from here? Well, sure, maybe it’s time to freshen up your punctuation knowledge. If that’s the case, I highly recommend reading The Dreyer’s English or Semicolon. I’ve read both of them recently and love them to pieces. Or perhaps a subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style is what you need—it’s what we use here at Fathom.
But I also leave you with a bit of encouragement to notice and try. Notice masterful punctuation when you see it. Recognize its effect. Send a mental gold star to the writer. Then try to do the same as you write. Invite your readers into the sitting room of your writing. Style it so it’s your own—like my childhood doctor’s office. Make it fun, beautiful, and welcoming.
And please, oh please, use the Oxford comma.
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