March 17, 2005

Punctuation at Its Finest

I’m guilty of almost every one of the punctuation elements Truss describes. I use the dash relentlessly, put ellipsis after several sentences, quote random words and, yes, even use the semicolon, although not as regularly as I’d like.

I’m really not very big on the semicolon, yet I’ll find myself using it in the appropriate situation. As Truss mentioned, using a semicolon really is “pulling out all the stops”. Since the semicolon is used so little using one is almost like saying to the reader, “Oh yeah, that’s right. I know grammar and I’m not afraid to use it.” I have had friends ask me for help with papers and stare blankly when I return it to them full of commas, periods, and the elusive semicolon. “What’s that for? Can’t you just use a comma?” they ask. I suppose the reason semicolons are looked at as a thing to be marveled is because so few know how to really use them. It can be confusing to some, I suppose. A dot and a comma. Oh dear.

I’ve noticed I also have the habit of quoting words (see above). As Truss explained, quotes are “sometimes used by fastidious writers as a kind of linguistic rubber glove, distancing them from vulgar words or clichés they are too refined to use in the normal way.” I mean, I don’t want people to think I actually said that, right? Actually, my quoting is not fully structured on my shame of using certain phrases. I find myself putting quotes around odd or unfamiliar words more than anything. I just wrote an essay and quoted “Americanization” the first time I mentioned it. I don’t exactly know why I felt I needed to quote the word, it isn’t all that unusual after all, but I did. Something deep inside my mind drives me to quote.

Now onto my love affair with the dash. Dashes, although Truss finds them a bit overused, may be one of my favorite punctuation marks. There is something special about using a dash instead of a comma when writing. It isn’t as formal as a semicolon yet more interesting than a plain ‘ol comma. And, as Truss mentioned, you can’t get it wrong. When in doubt, use a dash. Wonderfully theory to live, and write, by.

When I was in grade school I learned that I shouldn’t use parenthesis in my writing because it was not “mature” (here I go quoting again) enough. The ones signaling a date or documentation were fine but all the others must go. Whatever needed to be said in the parenthesis simply had to be enclosed in commas, put in another sentence, or thrown out all together. I don’t really know why I remember my teacher telling me this but the idea certainly stuck. I hardly ever, save informal writing like blogging or other, use parenthesis. I just stick the idea into a comma or forget about the aside all together. I suppose I agree with that teacher- it does make papers look less mature.

I’m an ellipses person. Look back through almost any of my other posts and some of my comments and you’ll find those famous three dots. I don’t use ellipsis much in formal papers but very often in informal writing like blogging. I enjoy “trailing off in an intriguing manner.” Three dots can convey so much! They can make a statement sarcastic, witty, funny, or mysterious. Once you start, it really is hard to stop.

Posted by VanessaKolberg at March 17, 2005 07:29 PM | TrackBack

“What’s that for? Can’t you just use a comma?” Vanessa, I definitely feel your pain on the teaching of the public school system.

In my own grammar school experiences, the uses of the adverb, adjective, noun, verb, and pronoun were the few items mentioned. After that, prepping for the PSSA's became the goal for my local school district.

Do you think, among many things, that standardized testing is ruining our society's focus on proper grammar?

Posted by: kellyn at March 21, 2005 01:32 PM

Really, the whole emphasis on standardized tests wasn't an issue when I was in school. However, when I went back to my elementary school to do observations, I noticed that teachers are teaching to the test. It's a shame too. Schools have so much pressure to do well on these tests that they are teaching the kids just what they need to know to do well- the heck with all the other stuff not on the test. What? No section on the semicolon? Oh well! Not important! Move on!

Posted by: Nessa at March 21, 2005 10:44 PM
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