By Kathy Bryson
Punctuation: Less = More!
E.B. White was not only the author of children’s classics like Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but he also revised and edited The Elements Of Style, probably the definitive guide to English grammar. My favorite bit of advice from White is:
When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.
As writers, we sometimes get on a roll and the description is flowing or we’re caught up in the moment as the action unfolds, and we think we’re writing powerful prose. But from a reader’s perspective, the point gets lost when you start stringing words and sentence together without the breaks proper punctuation provides.
The rule of thumb is 2, maybe 3 actions in a single sentence. The reader will see that much connection, but not more. And the actions must be clearly connected with conjunctions that show what the connection is. Or you get this famous example of overdone prose:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
- Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830, Paul Clifford
Broken apart per White’s guidelines, the passage is much clearer:
It was a dark and stormy night in London. The rain fell in torrents except when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets. It rattled along the housetops and fiercely agitated the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
The reader’s eye doesn’t see periods as interruptions, but rather as the necessary break to itemize or sequence action. What does jump out is the other punctuation. Dashes, punctuation, even the semi colon are not commonly used in prose. If you’re using semi colons or colons to join sentences, go back and study the paragraphs above. And a comma is NEVER used to join 2 sentences. That’s what we have conjunctions for.
So when would you need a dash? Possibly in dialogue to indicate an interruption. You may also run into ellipses to indicate a lull or pause in speech.
Dash: “Give up,” the vampire retorted. “It’s not like you can defeat – oof!” Cookie stepped back from slapping the vampire solidly across the face.
Ellipsis: “Um, well, we captured one to see, well, what we could find out, and then I guess, the others found out and came here…” Giovanni’s explanation trailed off.
Be sure to use an em or en dash instead of just a hyphen – https://getitwriteonline.com/articles/en-dashes-em-dashes/
Parenthesis are sometimes used to indicate an aside, but only if it’s a very brief interjection. Otherwise, if the point you’re trying to make is important, put it in its own sentence. You may be thinking of an insertion, but actually those are more commonly set off with commas.
Insertion-Cookie, unable to leave well enough alone, had tried to take out the vampires herself.
Commas are very versatile which also makes them sometimes confusing. They’re only used in four situations, but you have to recognize those situations in sentences:
With an introductory element – When Cookie didn’t turn up after the holiday weekend comma her roommates went looking for her.
With a coordinating conjunction –Giovanni hadn’t been sympathetic at first comma and then he was embarrassed to think he’d doubted her.
In a list – They didn’t have a basement in the old house comma but there was a garden shed complete with spiders comma cobwebs comma and scarily sharp gardening tools.
With ‘extra’ info –He looked up just as the convoy of clowns burst into the cafeteria comma hooting and hollering to the blare of rubber horns squawking.
See this handy-dandy printout for more examples of these comma rules.
Most people tend to overuse commas or use them in place of more basic punctuation like the period. It’s easy to get caught up in the story vs. the structure. But take it easy on the punctuation. It’s probably not creative as much as you needing to go back and check for clarity for your reader. Advanced punctuation may make for an artistic title, but even there, it will probably get in the way of search engine optimization.
Author’s note – All the punctuation examples above come from my latest zombie novella, Giovanni Dines With Vampires. Just as Giovanni was getting used to being a werewolf, all the coffee shops on campus are overrun by vampires, insane clowns, and rampaging rats! Just how is a med student supposed to study for the Boards with this mess? Available at your favorite online retailer – https://books2read.com/u/m0kRjY
The first book in the Med School series is FREE! Books 1 & 2 also available in audio.
Kathy Bryson is the award-winning author of tongue-in-cheek fantasy that ranges from leprechauns who play the stock market to zombies who hang out with and harangue med students. She’d like to say she’s climbed tall mountains, rappelled off cliffs, and saved small children, but actually she tends to curl up and read, is a life-long advocate of Ben & Jerry’s, and caters to 2 spoiled cats. She works regularly with student writing, so she can claim to have saved a few term papers. Read more about her books at www.kathybrysonbooks.com4
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