Make sure you’re punctuating the story you want people to read

Reading this post about the Oxford comma – from which I’ve taken the title of this post – reminded me of a discussion I had with someone I had the misfortune to edit for a few years ago. He didn’t believe in punctuation: “You know what I mean!” was the constant retort to any attempt on my part to find out what he did mean.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on grammar and punctuation and I’m not a fan of overly-prescriptive rules: language is a living thing, constantly evolving, and can’t be preserved in aspic. There is a case for punctuation without being too pedantic, though; especially if you want your message to come across the way you meant it. Lynne Truss’ classic book Eats, shoots and Leaves gives plenty of examples of how disastrous punctuation can radically change the meaning of our writing.

Every time the reader has to stop, go back, and work out what you meant, it’s taking them out of the moment. In non-fiction perhaps that matters less, but in fiction – where the reader needs to be drawn into the world the writer has created – it is jarring (and sometimes inadvertently comical) and can take the reader completely out of the story.


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