Monday, July 9, 2012

Radical Writing Advice: Punctuation Impermanence


I've been on an interesting search this week in my quest to come up with a fresh topic. Something I'm interested in and which fits the notion of "radical." Or semi-radical. Or maybe just clever. I started with a brainstorming list (which produced some future topics and some ideas which will lead to future topics because on their own they're not that interesting in my not-so-humble opinion).

I started one piece and my heart wasn't in it. It fell flat. Or more accurately, it fell into the drafts file. I wasn't ready to toss it out but I wasn't in a mood to develop it further. Luckily I'm my own Editor and can decide to axe an item without anyone knowing.

Except you. Now I've told you.

So I went back to my list and looked at it again. This piece is from the second look and, while it veers from the original spark, this is its growth.


There are rules for writing; to communication through language, any language. Right?

"Duh, Dot!"

But did you know that this hasn't always been true? That statement is true. I knew that language, as a living entity, changes over time. I knew that there have been words and phrases and spellings which have evolved over time.

I assumed that there have been punctuation changes, as well, although I hadn't given that much thought. Other than the use of contractions. I think about contractions because I use them. I have friends who write with minimal or no contractions. Their language is more formal and when they do use them, it is more deliberate. I write in a more conversational tone - most of the time, let me qualify that, because I actually can write a proper piece when required - and contractions are a part of the language of the world I write about. I've had discussions with other writers about whether to use or not use contractions, and when. I often don't use them during NaNoWriMo, until last year. That has been a good exercise in what my writing sounds like without them and, let me tell you, it's not good. My characters sound stiff and perhaps a little psychotic.

Oh, and I still made it across the 50k word line in 2011, even with my contractions.

But this isn't about me, this is about Punctuation; and the capitalization is intentional. Another tool we have as writers - capitalization - right there along with grammar, punctuation, and more.

So, I thought of a catchy little title for the original topic for today's writing: "grammar schmammar." The first thing I did was do an internet search for the phrase. I know there are other resources out there for research, but this is quick and easy and what I had at hand. I try to make sure I'm not stepping on toes ... and I often pick up tidbits in that process. Which was true today.

My cute play-on-words title turned out to not be original. But it did result in some interesting information; some trustworthy and some questionable; some just plain interesting. It also landed me at the Sun Sentinel's website and a piece about evolving English, including contractions and grammar.

Grammar schmammar: How 'proper' English is evolving

Not until the 17th century did people begin thinking that the language needed to be codified, and the details of who would do that and how have yet to be resolved. Should it be accomplished through a government-sponsored academy, an officially sanctioned dictionary, or what? These and other means were attempted, but meanwhile ordinary folks, dang them, kept right on talking and writing however they wanted, inventing words, using contractions and so on. 
Odd quests against specific words and uses were cropping up even in the 1600s, and they reveal the modern-day grammar warriors who campaign against, say, "finalize" to be tomorrow's ridiculous footnote. Jonathan Swift, for instance, had a thing about the word mob, a truncation of the Latin "mobile vulgus" (fickle crowd). Who knows how many other masterpieces he might have written had he not wasted all that energy fighting a battle that didn't need fighting. 
So, in my quest I found a nice piece of history to share. And support for this week's writing idea.

The idea that punctuation isn't necessarily necessary. Or that we have options in how we use punctuation. Or that the rules we've learned about how to use commas, colons, semi-colons, hyphens, and so on are flexible.

If you want a nice, concise overview of some of the things I'm dismissing, I ran across the Tameri Guide for Writers guide for punctuation. It's short and sweet and you can brush up on, before you brush off, punctuation. I also found a useful bit of information on the "Grammar and Punctuation" page at the Texas A&M University Writing Center website.


"So, just what are you proposing, Dot? That we completely give up punctuation?"

Fair question.

And. Yes and No.

For now. To challenge yourself. To open up your writing. Yes. At least as you're writing your first draft.

I am not dismissing punctuation as a tool available for writers: to give meaning, for clarity, for emphasis. Why, just look at my sentences. What would it look like or mean without punctuation? How would the meaning change? Would it? That last one is silly; it would change. You've probably heard of the popular "Eats Shoots and Leaves" book - a good example.

But, suppose. There have been authors who write without punctuation. Or with non-standard punctuation. And how many times have you found yourself slowed down by wondering whether a single hyphen was appropriate or if a colon would be better; or perhaps if you should break it out into two sentences?

What if you wrote without punctuation? Put your words onto the page (tactile or virtual) as they came to you.

Space can be used to show beginnings and ends. A symbol, perhaps, here and there. A period when it felt absolutely necessary.

Play with it.

Writing without worrying about punctuation can be very freeing.

Besides, that's what the editing process is for : putting in what you can't do without and taking out what doesn't work.


Below are a few examples of non-standard punctuation usage. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say deliberate punctuation manipulation.

"A vegetable garden in the beginning looks so promising and then after all little by little it grows nothing but vegetables, nothing, nothing but vegetables." - Gertrude Stein

"Every adolescent has that dream every century has that dream every revolutionary has that dream, to destroy the family." - Gertrude Stein

"Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go." - ee cummings

Then Nuvoletta reflected for the last time in her little long life and she made up all her myriads of drifting minds in one. She cancelled all her engauzements. She climbed over the bannistars; she gave a childy cloudy cry: Nuee! Nuee! A lightdress fluttered. She was gone. And into the river that had been a stream . . . there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears . . . for it was a leaptear. But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh! I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!”  - James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake