I love punctuation.
There’s obvious punctuation (and punctuating) you learn in primary school: e.g. full stops, commas, exclamation marks, question marks, the apostrophe, and quotation marks. Bizarrely, in primary school they teach you to use “double quotes” instead of ‘single quotes’, which are the Australian style. (Somebody needs to get on top of that – it’s seriously a Federal issue.)
This primary school (read ‘primary’) toolkit of punctuation offers you more than enough tricks to punctuate any piece of writing, whether it’s a report, a short story, a novella, or whatever the case might be. You can pack it up, keep it in some remote nook of your mind, and carry it with you wherever you go, ready to be drawn on at a moment’s notice. If you never learned another bit of punctuation, you’d be okay – well, mostly.
As I grew older and read voraciously, I encountered other forms of punctuation, which seemed … amazing. Like the ellipsis. Always arriving, interjecting, just as a thought … trailed … away, or even off into …
Some authors were adventurers. They didn’t just use ellipses, they communicated a tone to be attached to it. This was an astonishing, a marriage of two forms of punctuation to create a child. Could it really be …? It was …! This, as far as I was concerned, was like musical notes, a way to imbue tone in narrative that was much more transcendental than words.
Another favourite was the dash. It’d sit there – and then something would be appended to it. Other times, it would – to my delight – contain an appositive bit of information which, when removed, let the sentence run as if uninterrupted. There was beauty in that. Grace. Even elegance. Use the wrong punctuation here, and the sentence would be indecipherable.
For a time there (around the time I was trying to learn coding in computers), I treated the dash like a coding instruction, which means if it was turned on, it had to be turned off. As long as you did that, your sentence was fine, and could contain as many dashes as required.
Now – now that I’ve been editing for a number of years, and a writer for over twenty – I realize – to my embarrassment – that an excess of dashes is confusing – and makes things hard to follow. It’s not illegal – I’ve seen some well-known writers do it – but a definite no-no, as far as I’m concerned.
Some books had freak dashes that were seemingly interminable—they were much bigger than the standard dashes. They were brazen, defiant, and—most disturbingly—greedy, given they ate the humble spaces that usually bookended a normal modest dash. They were, in fact, megalomaniacal. It wasn’t until I was tertiary educated that I learned these different dashes had names.
– hyphen, (inserted here for scale, and is used for hyphenation, e.g. set-up, twenty-six)
– en dash, (due to its width being equivalent to the letter n)
— em dash, (due to its width being equivalent to the letter m)
The em dash also had a unique purpose, that being to signify dialogue or narrative had been interr—
The colon and semicolon were like a married couple who complemented one another, the colon bold and forthright, the semicolon sly and subtle, yet both bearing a passing similarity – both in name and appearance, as if overlong wedlock had seen each impress itself on the other.
But their purposes differ drastically. My understanding of the semicolon remains innate; I can give you a textbook explanation of when and where it’s required, but in actual use, I rely on feel – on rightness. You have to be caring and thoughtful and intuitive when dealing with a semicolon. The colon is much more blunt. It demands when it needs to be used: when the clause preceding a list or explanation can stand by itself.
I could go on and on, but think I’ve covered all the punctuation you need to know, (and nothing else comes to mind presently). It’s enough to understand my ultimate point, though.
Read any text that immerses you or entrances you, and the punctuation will be unnoticeable. Oh, you’ll see it. Your eyes will follow it, your mind will interpret it. But the punctuation itself has the power and sway of a hypnotist. You’ll do what you’re being told – pause where you need to, hear an exclamation, infer a question, etc. – without even knowing you’re being directed.
You’ll just do it, and all you’ll take from what your reading is what you’re reading.
That’s the magic of good punctuation.