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Bob Nailor


Can you write an article, a novel, a short story without any punctuation? The first sentence of this tip has 3 punctuation marks - 2 commas and a question mark.

Writing without using punctuation is not a new gimmick nor is it a trend of the times. To quote Cormac McCarthy:

James Joyce is a good model for punctuation, he keeps it to an absolute minimum. There is no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly you shouldn't have to punctuate...yeah punctuation is important, so that it makes it easy for people to read. I believe in periods, and capitals, and the occasional comma. You really have to be aware that there are not quotation marks to guide people though and write in a way that it is not confusing about who is speaking.

Cormac McCarthy is an author of today (All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road) who finds punctuation marks as unnecessary. But, he was not one of the first to embrace this challenge. Timothy Dexter (1/22/1748 - 10/26/1806) actually wrote a book (Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress) using very few punctuation marks. In fact, to appease his readers, on later re-prints of his book, he included a page with thirteen lines of punctuation which the reader could distribute as they pleased.

As a writer I have issues with NO punctuation but, at the same time, I subscribe to Cormac McCarthy's theory: There is no reason for all of these marks to muck up the page. If you write well enough and clearly enough there is no reason for quotation marks.

But we do use punctuation and if we do use it, we need to use it properly and portray it correctly. I do edits and constantly see the following:

"What you doing?" he said.
"What you been doing." he asked.

Combine the two for a correct line:

"What you been doing?" he asked.

If you use a question mark, the speaker is asking or questioning, it is not a statement.

Don't even start me on em-dash and ellipses. I did edits on a novel and informed the author to remove over 300 (THREE HUNDRED) ellipses and over 200 (TWO HUNDRED) em-dashes. The author had placed them into the sentences to add impact, pause, suspense or whatever. If you feel you need to use em-dashes or ellipses in your text, use it properly. Em-dash ( ) is an interrupt. An ellipses ( ) is used to indicate a fading. Still, as I was told by my mentor: If you're going to have somebody cut off another in a conversation - DON'T! Finish the sentence. In real life, most people finish their sentence even if another attempts to cut them off. Also, we don't normally let our words fade off into oblivion. That is called mumbling.

Semicolon. One of the most abused punctuation marks. Learn to use it properly or as my mentor told me: We use a semicolon to connect two closely related ideas together. Eliminate the semicolon and make it two sentences. Your writing will be stronger because both sentences will increase. Yes, you can use semicolons but use them sparingly and learn the rules of when, why and how.

Exclamation points! Oh my! Really? To begin with, when using an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, one will suffice. The addition of two, three, four or more will serve no purpose. Truly!!!

I was taught to place punctuation into a sentence to allow the reader (speaker) a chance to breath, to define. Commas are what I like to call breathers. I'm sure we all remember the fun we had with sentences back in grade school with such examples as:

What's that up the road a piece?
What's that up the road, a piece?
What's that up the road? A piece?


Pull the shade up Sally.
Pull the shade up, Sally

I would like to introduce Edwin Miller our city mayor who will give students diplomas.

By adding breathing breaks and definition delimiters, the above sentence would read:

I would like to introduce Edwin Miller, our city mayor, who will give students, diplomas.

Quotation marks are used to denote dialog. If you follow Cormac McCarthy's theory, they are useless and unnecessary. To some extent, I agree, but since I enjoy dialog and internal thoughts (aka dialog) and I need to be able to differentiate between the two. For me, quotation marks are that flag. If I use quotation marks, it is verbal dialog. If I don't use them, it is internal thoughts. For some, they use italics and sometimes that can be very overbearing, especially when trying to relate too much back story.

In time, punctuation will be relegated to antiquity but until that time, I will use them. Some punctuation marks have already fallen into obscurity that were either very ancient or relatively new but not well-received. Here's a list of 8 at Huffington Post but there are more, if you just search for "obscure punctuation marks" you will discover a whole new world of strange punctuation.

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Onisha Ellis
Just goes to prove I was right in all those arguments with my high school writing teacher. Sheesh, one misplaced comma and it was an automatic grade reduction.
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Elyse Salpeter
I love the "finishing the sentence" comment. I've been known to stop the sentence in a book and you're right - the person usually does finish it, just over the conversation that was trying to cut them off. I'm implementing this immediately. Great tips. (now don't get me started on em dashes)
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