Punctuation peeving and the gatekeepers of authenticity

Early last week, author Stephen Blackmoore said on the Tweetie, “Periods, commas, question marks. Everything else is bullshit.”

It was a one-off comment that may not have been entirely serious, and Blackmoore seems like a nice guy and I probably shouldn’t pick on him for this. But it’s a sentiment I’ve seen before. Lots of otherwise sensible and broad-minded people fixate on some punctuation mark that gets up their nose, like Kurt Vonnegut and his distaste for semicolons. And while it’s true that overuse of certain punctuation can be a distracting tic (as Anne Curzan illustrates in her meditation on the em dash), I have to wonder what people are thinking when they suggest weeding out the toolkit of written expression this way.

In the long history of the printed word, we’ve already jettisoned the punctuation that no longer serves us. The pilcrow and the manicule are mostly the stuff of old manuscripts now, and niche marks like the interrobang, quasiquote, and certainty point have failed to gain a foothold. At this stage, we can be pretty sure that the punctuation in common use is there because there’s a need for it.

So why do some marks inspire peeving and the impulse to dismiss them as “bullshit”? I suspect it’s a similar motivation to the much-loved, but still nonsensical, advice to “write with verbs and nouns, not adjectives and adverbs” and its variants – a purist version of “omit needless words.” Advocates of this approach say that the result is writing that’s “lean” or “concise” or “efficient,” as though those were obvious positives and ends in themselves that apply to all writing (which is not the case, but leave that for another day). And so there’s an idea that you can strip written language down to only its essentials, and everything that’s not strictly necessary goes in the Bullshit bin.

And what a lot of bullshit that outlook is. Yes, you can write using only “periods, commas, question marks.” But why would you? We have different kinds of connective tissue in sentences because the variation in rhythm and structure they provide is pleasing to the eye and helps convey meaning, tone, cadence, pace – all things that the skilled writer is a careful architect of. A well-written text is like a musical score that tells you where to pause, where to breathe, where to slow down, where to dash (as it were) forward. No one would tell a composer that some kinds of rests are essential and others are bullshit, but that’s what this boils down to.

To be sure, there are lots of interesting things that happen in prose when it’s given constraints. But there’s nothing especially laudable about reducing the tools of your trade to a tiny number just to make a point. It’s like dancing a tango in leg irons; sure, it’s sort of impressive if you can pull it off, but it’s a stunt. Show me what you can do when you’re unfettered.

What’s really going on here, I strongly suspect, is a kind of posturing, and it’s meant to police the boundaries of what’s implied when words like bullshit come into play. Because the opposite of bullshit is real, true – authentic. When you see a sentiment like this, you can be sure that what you’re seeing is the gatekeeping of authenticity: A real writer doesn’t use frivolities like semicolons, and if you do, you’re a poseur, a wanna-be – or at the very least, you’re Doin It Rong.

Please, fellow writers, can we not do this? Give yourself whatever constraints you like; by all means, do away with whatever isn’t useful to you. But don’t expect that doing so earns you extra points for the authenticity of your style or the purity of your craft. Your preferences are not virtues. Your way is not a truer way than the ones others have found. Nor should you presume that the style choices that work for you ought to work for everyone. Imagine the loss to the world of letters if everyone were to take this advice to heart, to reduce all choices of style and voice to matters of necessity, to throw away all the tools of composition just because some small number of practitioners are annoyed at the way other people use them.

I’m surely making too much of Blackmoore’s tweet here, but it was a silly thing to say, and writers need to be careful when they speak with the implied authority of professionals. Do not be like Strunk and White. Especially not when the statement you’re tempted to pronounce is a load of… well, you know.

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