This Saturday, September 24th, is National Punctuation Day.
Many of us writers have pet peeves about punctuation and can cite ferocious battles with copy editors over things like semicolons, the serial comma and m-dashes. I’ve never been able to figure out the semicolon, for example. I know a few writers that use it, but why? Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style says, “If two or more clauses grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.” It takes several readings and some concentrated brain power to even understand what the gods of grammar are saying there. They helpfully give these examples:
Stevenson’s romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures.
It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
Then in the next breath, they add that it is “equally correct to write each of these as two sentences, replacing the semicolons with periods.”
My point, ahem, exactly. Just as Strunk & White advise us to “omit needless words,” I think we should omit needless punctuation. Overusing it is either pretentious, as in the semicolon, or obnoxious, like when people insist on emphasizing everything with exclamation points!!! (These are usually the same people who INSIST ON YELLING AT US BY USING UPPERCASE LETTERS FOR EVERYTHING. (!!!)
Although we journalists love to interview people, fewer quotes (and thus quotation marks) are almost always better. Many writers use quotes out of laziness. After all, if you just quote what everyone else told you, then you don’t have to write, or think, much. Inexperienced reporters often use quotes out of “insecurity.” They don’t have the “confidence” to rephrase ideas more “succinctly” or analyze what’s been said. Quotes should be like jewelry. Too much is gaudy. But a few very fine, well-placed pieces will make the whole story sparkle.
If you care enough about punctuation to tell someone that it’s is not the same as its, you may want to celebrate this Saturday. A few websites that can liven up the party:
The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. I especially recommend the greatest hits in the lower right-hand column.
A blog that chronicles the ongoing misuse of apostrophes.
The National Punctuation Day website has a great list of resources on punctuation, grammar and editing.
And finally, watch this old clip of how Victor Borge and Dean Martin punctuate their singing.