Punctuation – how much is enough?

There’s no doubt about it that at least some punctuation is necessary in almost all forms of creative writing unless of course you’re writing in hieroglyphs.  But before we get into the issue of how much is too much it would be good to remind ourselves of the purpose of punctuation and the effects of too much or too little.
The Purpose

  • Punctuation marks serve to clarify or make the meaning of the text clearer to the reader.
  • They serve as signals or indicators that tell the reader when to pause, or when a new speaker has been introduced to the dialogue and so on.
  • They help the general flow of the piece making it feel much more natural and easier to read.  This is because it mimics the way that most people speak, punctuating their conversation with gestures, voice modulation and pauses.


The Effects of Misuse

  • It can trip the reader and interrupt the fluidity.  This is particularly the case with over use of exclamation marks or misplaced commas.
  • It can change the entire meaning of a sentence.  For example, in 1963 the state of Michigan saw that it was necessary to correct a punctuation error in the constitution that drastically affected the meaning of the law, especially concerning slavery. For over 100 years it read ‘neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crime, shall ever be tolerated in this state.’  By inserting the comma after the word servitude it states that slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal unless carried out for the purpose of punishing criminal activity.  In 1963 the error was rectified by repositioning the comma to just after the word slavery.  The new sentence rules out slavery for any reason but allows for involuntary servitude or imprisonment for those who commit crime.
  • In the case of too little punctuation the reader can become disoriented, unsure of where one clause ends or a new sentence starts.

A good analogy for punctuation is to use it as you would seasoning in the kitchen.  When cooking it’s best to add just enough seasoning to bring out the flavour and enhance the overall taste.   Too much is overpowering and detracts from the main flavours you want to draw attention to while too little makes the dish bland and non- descript.

The best rule of thumb is use as little as possible as long as it still makes sense and reads smoothly.  A good example of an author who manages to do this very well and still keep the integrity of his work is Cormac McCarthy, author of All the Pretty Horses, The Road and No Country for Old Men.  He never uses semicolons and doesn’t use quotation marks as he sees no need to” blot the page up with weird little marks.”   Click on the picture below to hear him discussing the subject with Oprah Winfrey.


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