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The Art of Punctuation

by The Editor Company   


Punctuation marks are little things, but they are as essential to good composition as nails are to a carpenter. Mainly by their aid do we make sense or nonsense of what we write. Notice the following, from which all marks are omitted: "Caesar entered upon his head his helmet upon his feet armed sandals upon his brows a cloud in his right hand a sword in his eye an angry glare." Who can tell how Caesar looked? Without punctuation marks, many sentences are mere jumbles of words. We, who mean to succeed, can not be too painstaking and careful. We can not all be great in great things, but we can all be great in little things, and punctuation is one of the little things in which we may attain our ideal.

The art of punctuation, as any other art, is acquired only by study and practice. There are certain well-defined rules observable by all; the mastery of these will make one capable of deciding where rules do not apply.

The period is found in manuscripts of a comparatively early date, and was probably in use before any other point. The word "period" means a circuit, so called because it is placed after a complete circuit of words.

The use of quotation marks is governed by fixed rules easily learned. An instance of three sets, one within another may be found in a story by Edith Wharton: John, reading a review, said, "Listen to this: 'His wonder is proportionately great when he lights on a novel as sweetly inoffensive as Paula Fetherel's "Fast and Loose." Mrs. Fetherel is, we believe, a new hand at fiction.' " The punctuation preceding a quotation is to be noticed: where the quoted matter is brief and is closely incorporated in the sentence, no mark precedes; a longer quotation is preceded by a comma; one of greater length and complexity, by a colon; matter requiring a new paragraph, by a colon and dash.

The question mark, besides asking a question, is enclosed in brackets to express irony; as, "What a beautiful (?) pattern of virtue." Irony, however, would better be shown by the thought, Punctuation is not intended to take the place of careful construction.

The uses of the apostrophe are few and unmistakable.

The hyphen, in compound words, is being dropped. Here is a simple rule that will generally be found accurate: "Omit the hyphen when the compound is accented on the first word; as, schoolhouse, blacksmith; retain the hyphen when the accent is evenly divided; as, cast-iron, sea-water." It is retained in such words as re-creation, to distinguish their etymological meaning from their derived and ordinary meaning.

Do not be too generous with your exclamation points. The reader may be more amazed by their bristling ranks than by the thought which is expected to produce surprise.

Parentheses are much less used than formerly. They interfere with the movement of a nervous, energetic style. They too often indicate the perplexed disposing of some thought, which a writer lacks art to introduce in its proper place. They have a legitimate use in dramatic composition, and in the reports of speeches.

The uses of the comma are manifold. It is, in fact, the point most frequently employed. Look up the distinction in punctuation between the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Note the difference between, "Tom, John and Henry are coming," and, "Tom, John, and Henry are coming." In the first, Tom's attention is called to the fact that John and Henry are coming; in the second, it is stated that Tom, John, and Henry are all three coming. Since the comma is most frequently used, study it most carefully, but do not weaken your construction by using too many.

The semicolon ranks between the comma and the colon. Where the connection between the parts is intimate, a comma is used; if the connection is slight, a semicolon is used; still less connection is indicated by the colon. All three may be, and are, used in one sentence. Where clauses, though slightly connected, make a complete picture, the semicolon joins them; as, "The sides of the mountain were covered with trees; the banks of the brook were diversified with flowers; every blast shook spices from the rocks; and every month dropped fruits upon the ground." This arrangement is better than writing them in four separate sentences. We can more easily combine the details and so form a single picture of fertility.

Study carefully the uses of the colon. It is as badly neglected as the comma is overworked. Read Wordsworth's, "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky," and justify his use of the colon.

The dash, it is said, was the only mark used by the race when it first emerged from barbarism and began to write: short ones for short pauses; long ones for long pauses. The prominence of dashes in the work of some modern writers leads one to believe they are not far beyond the savage or primitive condition. Learn to use the marks made for the use of civilized men.

If you wish to improve in the use of punctuation marks, study the best models. Don't waste time in trying to correct a badly punctuated passage. Dwell on the best in this as in everything else. A writer must know and know thoroughly, however, the rules that govern his art. It is neither necessary nor desirable that he keep these rules constantly before him while composing—this would tend to make his work stilted and mechanical—but the principles of his art should be so familiar to his mind as, without consciousness on his part, to control his actions.

The greatest writers have ever been the greatest students of their art. No details of the work are overlooked. It is careful attention to the little things one might be expected to neglect, that brings success.