Photo by Liz West from Flickr.comWords are the raw ingredients of communication. When we speak, we use inflection and pauses (together with facial expression and body language when we have visual contact) to add layers of meaning to the words. On the page, punctuation serves the same purpose.
Just as tone of voice may vary to suit the speaker’s intent, so might punctuation. Compare these two examples to see what a difference punctuation can make.
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?
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Dear John:The exact same words convey diametrically different messages with a change of punctuation. In this case the difference was intentional. In real life (read "your writing") inadvertent omissions or errors may cause unintentional confusion. It’s worth investing a little time in boning up on punctuation basics to avoid mishaps and misunderstandings.
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
That leads me to some shameless self-promotion. One of the unique features of my book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, is a brief, but comprehensive guide to all the punctuation you need for writing life stories, essays or memoir. It’s conveniently arranged in table format with brief examples to show how each rule works. That chapter also includes an overview of basic grammar and other ways to avoid confusion and convey the message you intend.
You don’t need to buy the book unless you want to take advantage of the comprehensive set of other writing tools it includes. You can track down the punctuation information for free on any of hundreds of Internet sites, or you may already have a book that covers it extensively. The advantage of my book is having it all at your fingertips on just a few pages. However you get it, whatever your resource, do take a few minutes to bone up and give your words the polish they deserve.
Write now: pull out a story you wrote a few months ago. Check to see if all the commas are right, using whatever resources you have available, web or print. How about the dialogue? (You did use dialogue, right?) Is it punctuated correctly?