Literary Hub - May 4, 2021
The Punctuation Marks Loved (and Hated) by Famous Writers
; vs. — vs. , vs. . vs. !
The Punctuation Marks Loved (and Hated) by Famous Writers
; vs. — vs. , vs. . vs. !
Parul Sehgal once argued that style “is 90 percent punctuation.” A glance at Adam Calhoun’s visual comparisons of novels stripped down to just their punctuation marks would suggest something similar. It also indicates something a little more than style—a kind of attentiveness, perhaps. As John Mayer once apparently said, for some reason, “Ladies, if you want to know the way to my heart: good spelling and good grammar, good punctuation, capitalize only where you are supposed to capitalize, it’s done.” But John, the Ladies might well ask, whose definition of “good punctuation” are we using here?
After all, even among experts, there are disagreements, some of them oddly vehement. (What inner forces would compel someone to demonize or deify the semicolon?) Possibly they are spurious, burnished for show. “Dogmatizing about punctuation is exactly as foolish as dogmatizing about any other form of communication with the reader,” Henry James wrote. “All such forms depend on the kind of thing one is doing and the kind of effect one intends to produce.”
Still, I think it’s safe to say that a writer’s punctuation choices matter—even if their choice is to burn it all down—or at least signal something to the reader. “Punctuation,” Mary Norris wrote in Greek to Me, “has always had the reader’s welfare at heart.” The same couldn’t exactly be said for writers. Here’s what a few of them had to say about the marks that delight and disgust them.
Hates it: Donald Barthelme
Why do I avoid, as much as possible, using the semicolon? Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. I pinch them out of my prose.
Hates it: Edward Abbey
I suppose this is a trivial matter but I do want to object to the maddening fuss-fidget punctuation which one of your editors is attempting to impose on my story. I said it before but I’ll say it again, that unless necessary for clarity of meaning I would prefer a minimum of goddamn commas, hyphens, apostrophes, quotation marks and fucking (most obscene of all punctuation marks) semi-colons. I’ve had to waste hours erasing that storm of flyshit on the typescript. [In reference to The Monkey Wrench Gang and preserved in Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast]
Hates it: Kurt Vonnegut
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. . . All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Note: However, the next few sentences in the essay, which is in A Man Without a Country, are “And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding. For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I’m kidding.” So, I don’t know. I realize that Vonnegut is the most famous aphoristic despiser of semicolons in our collective consciousness. And I may be biased, because I love semicolons and Vonnegut, but . . . I really don’t think he meant it.
Loves it: Lauren Oyler
There are so many things to fear in life, but punctuation is not one of them. That semicolons, unlike most other punctuation marks, are fully optional and relatively unusual lends them power; when you use one, you are doing something purposefully, by choice, at a time when motivations are vague and intentions often denied. And there are very few opportunities in life to have it both ways; semicolons are the rare instance in which you can; there is absolutely no downside.
Loves it: Ursula K. Le Guin
I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.” [from The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination]
Loves it: Claire Messud
In compiling the sentence, efficacy—or, more precisely, precision—is important; capacity is important; and clarity is important. This kind of writer, at least, doesn’t think in little stoppered declarative sentences. It isn’t like that. Not really ever. Perhaps for some people. But not for us. For those of us whose thoughts digress; for whom unexpected juxtapositions are exhilarating rather than tiresome; who aim, if always inadequately, to convey life’s experience in some semblance of its complexity—for such writers, the semi-colon is invaluable.
Loves it: Abraham Lincoln
With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.
Thinks it’s just a comma: Gertrude Stein
They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature.
(the exclamation point)
Hates it: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
Loves it: Julian Barnes
I feel sorry for the exclamation mark. It used to keep such high company, mark such weighty matters of terror and villainy. “Oh damn'd Iago! O inhumane Dogge!” cries Roderigo when stabbed. “Drowned! O where?” keens Laertes of his sister Ophelia. “How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!” announces the second book of Samuel. It was a punctuational effect kept on a high shelf, and used sparingly by good writers, who knew that the noise it made would carry like a gunshot.
It’s always been a strange and flexible sign, varying in strength according to the century and the language. In French it is much less forceful, so the translator of, say, “Madame Bovary” will have to prune up to 30% of Flaubert’s exclamation marks. When Emma Bovary and Rodolphe are romantically moon-gazing, and Rodolphe enthuses, “Ah! la belle nuit!”, one if not both of those marks would have to go.
How might we rescue it from its current plight? I think it’s a lost cause where the social media are concerned, but maybe salvageable in writing proper. One exemplary field where it is still used with precision is that of chess notation. Thus, “!” indicates a strong move, “!!” a very strong one; while the lovely “?!” indicates a move which is risky, quite possibly unsound, but also perhaps decisive.
Loves it: Tom Wolfe
In “We”, Zamiatin constantly breaks off a thought in mid-sentence with a dash. He’s trying to imitate the habits of actual thought, assuming, quite correctly, that we don’t think in whole sentences. We think emotionally. He also used a lot of exclamation points, a habit I picked up and which I still have. Someone counted them in ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’—some enormous number of exclamation points, up in the thousands. I think it’s quite justified, though I’ve been ridiculed for it. Dwight Macdonald once wrote that reading me, with all these exclamation points, was like reading Queen Victoria’s diaries. He was so eminent at the time, I felt crushed. But then out of curiosity I looked up Queen Victoria’s diaries. They’re childhood diaries. They’re full of exclamation points. They are so much more readable than the official prose she inflicted on prime ministers and the English people in the years thereafter. Her diaries aren’t bad at all.
Advises moderation, unless you’re Tom Wolfe: Elmore Leonard
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
Loves it: R.L. Stine
When a moment of true horror arises in a novel, there’s no better punctuation than a —. [For example:] ‘She stopped and gasped—and opened her mouth in a scream of horror.’ ‘He stumbled, fell—and toppled into the open grave.
Loves it: Laura van den Berg
In the past year I [have] fallen, after years of resistance, into headlong love with the em dash. I love the way it can create the feeling of a fractured/incomplete/interrupted line or thought.
Hates it: No writers. (This is scientific fact.) But many editors.
The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete? Strunk and White—who must always be mentioned in articles such as this one—counsel against overusing the dash as well: “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” Who are we, we modern writers, to pass judgment—and with such shocking frequency—on these more simple forms of punctuation—the workmanlike comma, the stalwart colon, the taken-for-granted period? (One colleague—arguing strenuously that certain occasions call for the dash instead of other punctuation, for purposes of tone—told me he thinks of the parenthesis as a whisper, and the dash as a way of calling attention to a phrase. As for what I think of his observation—well, consider how I have chosen to offset it.)
Hates it: Gertrude Stein
As I say commas are servile and they have no life of their own, and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one’s own interest and I do decidedly like to like my own interest my own interest in what I am doing. A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it and to me for many years and I still do feel that way about it only now I do not pay as much attention to them, the use of them was positively degrading.
Loves it: Garielle Lutz
For all I know, the Age of the Comma is over. But it was a beautiful time to be alive and to be fingering words. Sentences had precision. These days, you see a theater critic in a prominent magazine describing the Broadway show Sweet Charity as “Neil Simon’s sanitized musical version of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.” Without a comma separating “sanitized” from “musical,” the phrasing implies, unhelpfully, that there are at least two stage musical adaptations of the Fellini picture, that the versions differ in their degree of sanitization, and that the sanitized version is the one under review.
Listens to the sound of the sentence, and is always right, Bob: Toni Morrison
[On her editor, Bob Gottlieb, who famously “was always inserting commas into Morrison’s sentences and she was always taking them out”] We read the same way. We think the same way. He is overwhelmingly aggressive about commas and all sorts of things. He does not understand that commas are for pauses and breath. He thinks commas are for grammatical things. We have come to an understanding, but it is still a fight.
Loves it: Garielle Lutz
A little book needs to be written about the hyphen—it would be a very consoling book, at least to me—because the hyphen is the most neglected punctuational device we’ve got. I went a little nuts when I first took notice of it, back in third grade. I started putting hyphens between all of the words in my sentences. I thought that was a way to keep things from falling apart, but the teacher made me stop. (That year I also bought a vocabulary-improving book. The first chapter offered the adjectives “eldritch” and “gelid.” I tucked them into a paragraph I had to write in class, and the teacher told me to quit making up words.) The hyphen, though, is the sweetest of punctuation marks, because it unites words into couples (and sometimes threesomes and foursomes). It’s an embracer. It does most of its most important business in front of nouns, and its business is to make things clearer.
Loves it: Norman Mailer—at least when he was seven
My writing was remarkable for the way I hyphenated words. I loved hyphenating, so I would hyphenate “the” and make it th-e if it came at the end of the line. Or “they” would become the-y. Then I didn’t write again for a long time. I didn’t even try out for the high-school literary magazine.
Loves it: Gertrude Stein
Periods have a life of their own a necessity of their own a feeling of their own a time of their own. And that feeling that life that necessity that time can express itself in an infinite variety that is the reason that I have always remained true to periods so much so that as I say recently I have felt that one could need them more than one had ever needed them.
Tolerates it, if he must: Cormac McCarthy
I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.
James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.
Well, then. Problem solved.
Emily Temple is the managing editor at Literary Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020.