Plus that only counts as one word according to my word count, so I’m going to have to play devil’s advocate and suggest that there may actually be some use in punctuation. Also, I don’t know whether the space bar actually counts, but it helped made my point.
Punctuation is rather important. I don’t think there’s as much necessity to get obsessed over it as some people make out, and I certainly am not its most perfect user. I make a lot of mistakes, but I also generally get where the various punctuators belong.
Punctuation isn’t just about being grammatically correct and precise, it’s about making text clear. It’s about making it easier to read, easier to parse and glance through. It provides breaks in the text so you know when to breathe and pause, without having to think about it and guess. It can be the difference between bashing your skull against an impenetrable wall of text and nimbly bouncing over the top of it.
Let’s look at speaking, where we don’t see the punctuation. Or even singing, where the rules are there to be broken. In both situations, it’s the gaps and pauses that make a good speaker. I’m still miffed about getting nervous and misjudging a few lines in my portion of Howl from a communal reading last night. One pause in the wrong place, one lack of pause where I’d meant to put one, and the rhythm is loss. Or the songs where everything cuts out for a second and a half and when you can feel the vacuum sucking away at you before everything bursts outwards.
The right intonation, the right gaps, the comic timing, these are the things that bring words to life. Words are just letters, but punctuation, lets us focus on what they are saying, not just trying to work out how they fit together.
My punctuation is technically atrocious, but hopefully it still makes me legible, even as I rush. It remains a device for making sense of elaborate processes, for giving structure to the ranting and raving. It’s built so organically into the writing process. Writing the first paragraph was a struggle. Actually intending to leave it out is impossible.
It’s the breath.
The punctuation isn’t just the spaces in which we have time to breathe, it’s the life being breathed into the words themselves. There’s other ways of doing it. And without it, great writing can still pull you, it makes you breathe into it anyway. Punctuation is guidance, suggestions, it makes it flow. You can do it yourself, but at the expense of thinking about it. It lets your brain not think about what’s underlying, and just read.
So it’s not always important, and sometimes its removal is marvelous (paging Molly Bloom), but we aren’t all Joyce or cummings. We can’t always glory in confusion. Sometimes we need to breathe our writing.
And that’s when we punctuate.
But preferably not as badly as I do.
Illustration by Helen