Assorted Opinions: Uneasily Enthused

Posted by ractrose on 3 Aug 2018 in Nonfiction

Cartoon of bored exchange between knight and demon



Assorted Opinions

Uneasily Enthused
(On punctuation)





Is it extreme to hate a mark of punctuation?

Or…have you noticed that when people explicate, after stating their dislike for the exclamation point, or the semicolon, they begin to talk about the sorts of people they don’t like?

I am a little charmed, myself, by enthusiasm, and don’t recall reading any book where the use of exclamation points was disturbing, or interfered with my comprehension.

The usual complaint is that they are overstatements; that they vie for attention.

Also, there’s this:


Buzzfeed: We Tried to Stop Using Exclamation Points and It Was So Hard!


(On the popular idea these marks are used mostly by women.)


Now, why would you be bothered, suffer an existential crisis, over whether this or that jot suggests you’re betraying feminism, feminizing yourself, conforming to a stereotype, defying a stereotype, persuading, failing to persuade, pleasing, trying too hard to please, looking accessible, looking stupid…

Which might be called simple, which might be called rustic, which might be called…common. Part of the problem!

(Okay, settle down.)



Book excerpt gives rhetorical example


Snippet from South Carolina in the Revolutionary War, William Gilmore Simms, 1853.


As a nineteenth century writer (sample above) might put it: How limiting—and how pointless!—to fear your use of punctuation brands you the wrong sort of person! (The inverted question, augmented with the emphatic interjection.)

Many of our literary foreparents got great mileage from this sort of thing, when they had the occasion to deplore or marvel at their present-day atrocities. But—to the point—if you’re going to write period fiction, you need to be conversant with this, and a variety of other casual and rhetorical styles.





Is the semicolon stuffy; is it a kind of showing off?

Why should it be? (People who have “been to college” are just as likely as anyone else to use them wrong.) They do serve a purpose in a kind of formal writing, mainly because complicated sentences on topics arcane to the reader, benefit from every sort of clarity. They also have specific technical uses—where clauses make contrasting statements, where a conjunction has been left out.

And you might not think of a semicolon belonging in dialogue, but you can probably think of the sort of person whose speech would contain semicolons. In that case, what artistic self-negation is justified by refusing to use them?

It’s helpful to look at punctuation as a sort of musical notation.


    , = a one beat pause
    ; = a two beat pause
    … = a three beat pause
    — = a glide and stop


For more literary theater, there are other line/clause terminating devices.


    She is going to tell that story. Again.

    Of course, that was just what Fisher had been asking… Too late to have grasped his purpose now.

    Everyone had been in the process of disembarking anyway, and should have got off safely enough—
   Well, to tell the story properly, I’ll have to go back to that telegram in June, the one Aunt Eula had done her best to stop me paying the overcharge on, certain we were being rooked.


In the first example, the adverb floats like an iceberg from the parent sentence, to become a punchline.

In the second, we have the Trailing Ellipsis/Space/Fragment treatment, allowing “Too late to carry more weight. (Never mind anyone’s suggestion you shouldn’t use fragments.)

The third example shows the dash-and-drop, a mechanism either humorous or fraught.

My own bag of tricks as a writer contains every sort of device, since they all aid composition, in the truest sense. How you read the story is the story. What does it mean, after all, when something is “done for effect”? If your artistic austerity is too fine for drama (or for anything else), are you applying an unexamined standard? Do you wholly account for your judgment of yourself vs. others: “This is my level”; “That is too low for me”?

(As general life advice, every form of snobbery is the burning of a bridge, so you need to be certain you’re not going back there.)


A last word, then, on the semicolon, the comma splice, the Oxford comma. I don’t follow a style book (Chicago Manual of, AP, etc.). I try to apply such rules as have a persuasive logic.

If something in quotes is part of the sentence, I put the stop—period, question mark, exclamation point—outside the quote. If the segment is genuine dialogue, I put the stop inside the quote.

A good reason for this:


I asked him why he had parked diagonally over the walk, and he said he was “only going in for a minute”!


The exclamation point is an editorial comment of the narrator. If you made an unvarying rule that punctuation always goes inside the quote, the speaker’s enthusiasm would either be misrepresented, or the narrator’s indignation would require unnecessary fanciness, e.g.: (!)

Now, say you write…


The watercolorist’s backpack contained pencils and brushes, pots of pigment, three tablets of paper, a small water bottle and saucer, a large water bottle for her lunch, sandwiches, chips, napkins, and a camera.


The comma use varies. Things that are of a set: pencils and brushes, small water bottle and saucer, are not separated. This method also varies the rhythm of the sentence as you read it, to pleasing effect. So why would it make sense to rigidly separate everything, or always link up the last two items, however unrelated?


They would like to deny responsibility, they would like to make a disability of their fecklessness; they would like to claim, nonetheless, that they can be trusted with responsibility!


He left the house, and as he would not be back, quashed the impulse to slam the door, pulled it softly, let it click.


The old-fashioned way of punctuating the first example requires a semicolon between each clause. I usually treat clauses that function as items on a list, as such, to be separated less fussily by a comma; only the final clause, that draws some logical point from the preceding ones, asks for a semicolon. There are two other arguments for using one here: That you could consider an “and” to have been replaced before the final clause, and that “nonetheless” is simply placed centrally (for dramatic emphasis), and might have been placed at the head of the clause. By tradition, if a clause is constructed: This; otherwise, that… the conjunctive adverb takes the semicolon/comma treatment.

In the second example, formally there would be a semicolon between house and and; the last phrase using the ing verb form, or being offset with a conjunction. But this passage makes an elegiac moment in the story (whatever the story may be), and the prose as written does a better job of conveying that.




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(2018, Stephanie Foster)