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.

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