Saturday, January 20, 2007

Don't shoot the panda

I think I am moderately good at grammar and punctuation. No, actually, I think I'm very good but I'm trying to be modest. But then I listen to Lynne Truss and I realise I am a mere amateur.

I read Eats, Shoots and Leaves ages ago but last night I listened to it on CD while I was doing the ironing (2 hours of it!) (Ironing that is.) The in-laws saved it for us as it came free with one of their Sunday papers. (The CD not the ironing.)

Commas I am okay on, although I am possibly a bit liberal in my usage; full stops are no problem; even apostrophes are manageable: it's the colons and semi-colons that get me. Probably lots of other things too but I don't want to get too hung up about it.

Until I read Eats etc, I didn't use semi-colons. I preferred, in my ignorance, to use full stops or misuse commas. Now I litter my writing with the winking one.

And that brings me to the real point of this post - yes, there is one.

A long time ago (or it might have been in Eats etc) I read that the exclamation mark is most often used like canned laughter. The author is pointing at what he has written and saying, 'Laugh here; this is funny.'

I quickly stopped sprinkling my writing with them.

Much of what I write is intended to be funny - certainly not to be taken seriously - and I hope that comes across to the reader. If it doesn't, I am failing as a writer.

What Lynne Truss doesn't deal with in her book is the new punctuation of the internet. Exclamation marks themselves are being replaced by LOL, ROTFL, :) and ;).

We - writers - need to have confidence in our writing, allow it to speak for itself. (There, now, should that be '... writing; allow ...'? Yes, I think it should. The semi-colon would leave more of a breathing space between the two parts of the sentence, giving the second phrase more emphasis.)

Try reading it, first with a comma, then with a semi-colon.

We need to have confidence in our writing, allow it to speak for itself.

We need to have confidence in our writing; allow it to speak for itself.

I could go further and write:
We need to have confidence in our writing. Allow it to speak for itself.

Or even:
We need to have confidence in our writing. Allow it to speak for itself! (Deliberately using an exclamation mark as a defiant call to writers. I'm slamming my fist down on the desk as I say that, can you tell?)

How did it happen that schools in Britain went through a time of not teaching grammar and punctuation? What happened to the brains of the people in charge who decided that?

It is far easier to misinterpret the meaning of words written down than it is to misunderstand the spoken word. Punctuation is vital.

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

9 comments:

james higham said...

Liz, the exclamation mark suffers from overuse, as does overcapitalization. I like your last examples.

Stu said...

A woman without? Herman, 'tis nothing.

(Adolf speaking to the Reichsmarschall?)

Liz said...

James, I should have said, the last two examples are from Lynne Truss's book.

Stu, A woman without Herman is nothing.

Ian Grey said...

...but what about the cycling fish?

Chris said...

I like exclamation marks and shall continue to use them excessively.

I like all punctuation marks and can't think of any that upset me.

I dislike the current trend of using meaningless (for me)initials as an exclamation, e.g. 'LOL'. I don't know what they mean and don't really want to waste my time trying to guess. Same goes for :) and ;). What do they mean?

A woman without man is wo!!

Lee said...

Great post, Liz. I concur.

Ian said...

Smileys People John Le Carre! ;)

Shirl said...

With you all the way Liz. I overuse dashes - like this. All over my emails. When I write other things, I have to edit out the unnecessary hyphens before I start on anything else.

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