Thursday, December 05, 2013
The Rules of Writing-Syntax-Punctuation
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes And Renée Miller
Published: June 24, 2013
The argument about punctuation has raged for years in writing circles. Defenders of rules and usage have dug their heels in, while their opponents accuse them of being grammar fascists or punctuation zealots.
We observed the battle at our old writer’s group, a lively crowd with close to fifteen-hundred members, including both established writers and those struggling through their first manuscript. Many newcomers to the profession displayed varying degrees of contempt for the elementary rules of grammar and syntax. Not surprisingly, punctuation was one of their pet peeves.
In our opinion, the issue is straightforward: some writers can do whatever they want; others cannot.
To answer who belongs in each group we’ll use an example:
Picasso (or to give his full name, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso) was one of the foremost modern painters. Unlike most of his contemporaries, his works commanded millions of dollars while he could still spend them. A sample of his synthetic cubist style is Musiciens aux masques, which is Musicians with Masks or The Three Musicians. You can view it at:
Much of his later work was considerably simpler-looking. Sometimes, only a few brush strokes graced a canvas.
We’ve heard many ironic or downright pejorative comments about his work:
“My seven-year old could do better.”
“I wouldn’t hang that on my barn.”
“I could do that with one hand tied behind my back.”
A few years back, at Barcelona’s Picasso Museum, we spent a good fifteen minutes drinking-in his awe-inspiring oil on canvas
or First Communion. You can have a look here:
Picasso painted his “Primera Comunión” at age fourteen. Later, he changed the rules because he could.
There’s an intrinsic fallacy in the cliché “rules are there to be broken.” It doesn’t mean all the rules, but only those a particular artisan has mastered. Sidestepping a norm without knowledge is the trait of fools, not writers. Musicians must study a composition and know it inside out before attempting to imprint their own style on it, and the same goes for ballet dancing and figure skating. Artists must learn the rules intimately, to discover why, where, and how to break them.
To determine in which group we belong there’s a simple test. A writer has only to type a standard 250-word page eschewing punctuation. If said writer can then list on a separate page every missing punctuation mark, like Picasso he can write prose as he pleases. (His publishers and readers might take a dim view, but that’s another matter.)
In other words, to disregard punctuation rules intentionally is the right of every modern writer, but to eschew punctuation out of laziness or ignorance is a recipe for disaster.
That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance! The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood—this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance.
Punctuation is the soul of rhythm, style, and tone in literature. Its use and misuse can alter the meaning of sentences, and even full paragraphs as displayed in this classic:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours? Gloria
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria
Take the humble apostrophe. Its use can turn a passage from friendly to bureaucratic: from easy to stiff.
I don’t know if they’ll be in town.
I do not know if they will be in town.
And what about commas? Like everything else in writing, there are norms for their use. “Eats shoots & leaves” is a description fit for a panda, but “Eats, shoots, & leaves,” is for gunslingers.
Every other day, we hear someone’s remark about the best-selling author who writes with too many commas. A sentence or paragraph with too many commas belongs to someone who didn’t know what to do with them. Sometimes, a sentence requiring more than two commas betrays our irrational urge to string too many ideas before a period. Punctuation signs are not optional—unless a writer knows what he’s doing—and commas are no exception. Their role is to render the meaning of sentences clear, not to take a breather, as taught in some schools. Why? Because not everybody breathes with the same intensity or cadence.
This section covers the rules governing punctuation and the norms every writer must know intimately before dreaming of being a literary Picasso. As Kant remarked: “Theory without practice is empty; practice without theory is blind.”
Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes
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