Punctuation Pariahs

Punctuation Pariahs

This is going to be a gripe fest. Pull up a brewski and pop open a comfortable chair and settle in for it. Some things just have to be said.

Let’s start with my biggest gripe. Know what it is? You guessed it. Exclamation points. Bangs. Screamers. Shriekers. ! ! ! ! ! And lots of other names, some of which are not for utterance in polite company (we can, once more, thank the Brits for those).

If I had to pick one punctuation pariah, the exclamation point would be it. In scripts, like play scripts and film scripts, they are absolutely verboten. They are not just the mark of surprise, they are the mark of the amateur. And tolerance for bangs in prose, such as in novels, is almost as sparse.

Writers have had lots of things to say about exclamation points over the years.   F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” And Elmore Leonard’s Fifth Rule of Writing is, “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” All well and good, but in practice Elmore used 49 bangs per 100,000 words and Fitzgerald laughed at this own joke 356 times per 100,000 words. Neither even comes close to James Joyce, though, who slipped 1,105 of the little buggers into 100,000 words. That would be a bang for every 90 and a half words. There is special irony in that last factoid since I have it from an inside source that I was Joyce in a previous life. Of course, so were 89.6% of Jesuit high school graduates, but who’s counting?

Back to the bangs. I haven’t counted how many exclamation points I use in my prose, but I’d guess it’s more than two or three, though fewer than 49, per 100,000 words. I think long and hard before I’ll stick one in. I have this feeling that the action and the dialogue should convey to the reader whether there is the kind of urgency a bang would convey. And if they do, why clutter up things with an exclamation point and treat the reader like a moron? This falls into the same category as why I don’t like to give a lot of detail about characters’ appearance. Let readers use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Now there are times when it sounds stupid not to include an exclamation point: “Hell, yes!” Sometimes they just make sense. But consider how exclamation points can change the meaning of things. “Get out. Just get out,” shouldn’t have one if one intends to convey somberness. But the sense of the same words changes here: “Get out! Just get out!” See the difference, and how bangs change the sense and urgency of the same words?

I’ve been finding that my crusade to purge all needless bangs from my writing has been carrying over to my personal correspondence, and I’m finding that I’m carrying things a bit too far there. Informal writing is different from formal writing, and exclamation points have a place in informal writing, as long as one does not overdo it. “Oh, wow!” merits a bang, for sure. “I had a cold last week!” (I didn’t) probably doesn’t.

So why am I on this anti-bang crusade? It’s because I’ve seen way too many exclamation points in some things I’ve read recently. For instance, while I generally liked the book, one of the more annoying things (if not the only one) about Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma was her insistence on excessive use of exclamation points. I found myself wondering what the editors were thinking to allow so many bangs, most of which were superfluous. The dialogue could have carried the sense perfectly well without them. Actually, better, since I would not have been so distracted by the punctuation and not resentful of being treated like a dolt. The subject matter of the book, which I’m planning a review of sometime soon, is such to get most readers’ attention all by itself. No exclamation marks needed.

Okay, that’s my biggest punctuation gripe. What’s number two? Thought you’d never ask. In contrast to the assertive bang, it’s the regressive semi-colon. The ; Yup. So why such angst over the semi-colon? Because, in my view, the semi-colon is practically an anachronism. Not quite, but slouching in that direction. My position – which I repeatedly drilled into my writing students’ heads in an effort to set them on the right path from the outset – is that if there is a pause greater than a comma would indicate, then use a period. Point. Full stop. I think it punches up the writing and holds the reader’s attention instead of losing it in the marshmallow of the semi-colon.

No, not everyone is going to agree with me. My advice to them: Get over it (notice use of the colon, which still has a purpose). Banish semi-colons and substitute periods for them and your writing will be the better for it.

Now, like the exclamation point, there still are some uses for a semi-colon. I find them useful when making a list, to divide one item on the list from the next. Like this: “For this project you will need: 15 commas; 42 periods; a couple exclamation points; and no semi-colons.” Okay, there are probably better examples than that, but you get the point. Or the semi-colon.

The one thing you absolutely don’t want to do is wind up with a run-on sentence because you’re avoiding semi-colons. A run-on occurs when you have two independent clauses, each of which could stand on its own as a sentence, that get stuck together without any appropriate punctuation. Here is an example: “It’s snowing heavily out we can’t possibly make it home tonight.” If you write run-ons like that, you shouldn’t make it home tonight and would be advised to wander off into a snow drift (only kidding! You can be taught!) That run-on sentence can be corrected with a semi-colon: “It’s snowing heavily out; we can’t possibly make it home tonight.” But to me, that’s mealy-mouthed. I prefer: “It’s snowing heavily out. We can’t possibly make it home tonight.” Or better still: “It’s so warm. Let’s go get some Mai Tais and enjoy the sunset.”

My next gripe really isn’t about a punctuation mark at all, though a lot of people seem to use it as a form of punctuation: lol. No, I’m not telling you I’m making a funny. It’s use of those three letters, lol, in one’s writing. And yes, I’m including informal writing here, which is where it usually crops up. If you’re saying something funny, then your words should convey the humor, shouldn’t they? If you have to tell readers they should laugh, either you’re not being very funny, or you consider your correspondent to be an idiot who shouldn’t be allowed out without supervision. If something comes across as a bit ambivalent, where the correspondent might wonder if you’re being serious or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with clarifying things, like doing what I did above and saying you’re just kidding. Or whatever it is you’re doing. I hate to say it, but even an emoji would be preferable to using lol. Of course, half the time emojis come across at the other end as semi-colons and something else, so that might not work.

Anyway, those are my gripes for now. Don’t worry, there will be more. But these are my biggies in the realm of punctuation. Do you have any punctuation pariahs of your own? Or maybe you think these things are fine! So go ahead; tell me what you think! Lol!

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.

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