Punctuation is not your enemy.

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Let’s start at the beginning. The written word was developed as a way of recording something that has no physical presence. From the very start, it was there to tell a story: I was here, and this is my hand print. I was here, and this is a picture of me killing a mammoth. I was here, in this lousy wet, cold country, when I’d rather be in Rome.

Humans progressed from simple daubs to pictures to runes to ogham script, and so on; as the need to communicate and record grew, so did the complexity of the way in which spoken words or thoughts, or indeed actions, were represented. While spelling may not have been fixed, the letters and words had to be recognisable to more than just the writer’s intimates. The written language began to be formalised, and more unified, in the hands of scribes and monks. It became a tool of church and state, which demonstrates its importance. A man dictating a letter in England wanted it to be read in York or Rome: to do that, it had to follow rules that the readers in those places would also comprehend.

Move on a few centuries: printing has taken care of the forms of the words so successfully that people are writing for pleasure as well as for matters of business, law, or religion. Now there’s a desire to convey nuance as well as simple meaning. There’s a need to clarify, to avoid misunderstanding. Words that run together can be read wrongly, unless there’s a way of making certain that there can be no misconstruction – and that’s where punctuation comes in.

If you were writing a piece of music, you’d give all the instructions necessary, using the internationally accepted code, for any orchestra anywhere to reproduce the tune the way you heard it, and the way you wanted the audience to hear it. Anyone playing the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does so as he intended: ‘da da da DUM, da da da Dum’, not ‘diddly dum, diddly dum’, because he told them exactly how to do it. He gave them the key, a time signature, the length of the individual notes, and spacing.

If you wrote a piece of computer code, you would have to get it right, or the machine for which it was intended wouldn’t function. (Everyone who owns a computer knows how much fun that is.) The same applies to the written word.

Punctuation is just such a piece of code: it’s there to provide information. It tells you, for example, not only that there is speech, but how it is spoken; you know that the speaker tails off, or asks a question, or exclaims. It divides lines of text up into usable chunks with pauses of different lengths, just as they would be when spoken. It’s a way of moving the prose along, by marking out what belongs together and what should be kept separate.

When we read silently, we hear the words inside our heads. We provide the soundtrack. For precisely that reason, the writer has to give us all the clues available to him to tell us how to make the work sound as he intended. He uses the code. It may vary according to the language in which he writes, but every language has the same idea – to provide the information necessary to reproduce the work as it was conceived.

No-one ever hears your work in your voice; they hear it in theirs, like a dubbed film. If you have ever watched the credits of such a production, you’ll see two cast lists – one for the actors, dumbly moving about on the screen, and one for the voices of people you will never see. The vital thing is that the dubbed voices match the original for content and meaning, even if the syncing is off. The same applies to a reader’s version of your work; it is still yours, and it should say what you meant it to say – it’s just got a different voice-over.

So unless you want your sweated-over novel to come out sounding like a badly-dubbed film, or Beethoven’s Fifth opening like the theme for ‘Captain Pugwash’, get it right; give the reader all the clues. Make friends with punctuation. It really isn’t your enemy.

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About Lorraine Swoboda

Author of Mrs Calcott's Army. I write about the creation of a novel. It's a complete mystery, but I've done it. I also write about the basic building blocks of writing - grammar, punctuation, and those niggling things that you know don't sound quite right but you can't work out why. Writing is 20% inspiration, 40% perspiration, and 40% staring at the screen wondering what I pressed to make it do that.

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