A lecture voice speaks into your earphones as you tour the museum:

“Language developed because we have a need for information to be passed from one group or person to another. As the years passed, some mother said, ‘Leave me a note if you’re going rabbit hunting while I’m at the stream, bathing your sister.’ She handed young Spikker a rock shaped like a rabbit and showed him where to leave it.”

A light comes on over a rabbit-shaped rock. In the background a primitive family is painted living in the ancient wilderness by a streambed.

Suddenly you wonder what it would be like never to receive any communication from another person in your life. Not written, not spoken, not texted, not phoned, not even from a television set or movie. It is uniquely human, the ability to pass information on from a person who is absent to a person who is present.

This communication can be almost instant, as in texting, or can span thousands of years, as in hieroglyphics.

Over the sands of time, distant communicators have had to attempt to make their communication more clear to their readers. The rabbit rock only worked for the one pair of communicators and did not work so well for leaving a note telling mom, he was going swimming. Punctuation was developed. In hieroglyphics, it is the border drawn around groups of symbols. In our modern written language, it is periods, commas, and all the other symbols that we use to express our intentions. The exact placement of these symbols is important for their exact positioning may change the meaning dramatically.

Here are two examples each using the same words, two commas, and one period:

1. Woman, without her man, is lost.

2. Woman, without her, man is lost.

Another example became the title to a book on punctuation. This is how I remember it:

The wild panda eats shoots and leaves. We learn that commas set apart items in sentences. Many of us would punctuate the sentence to read; The wild panda eats, shoots, and leaves. This sentence would make the meaning change vividly. No one wants shot at by a panda.

Television and actors, news reporting, and even the teleprompter used by speakers to deliver speeches, use the language of writing. Our current president is adept with teleprompter use, which makes the speech he delivers an act of communication between other times, yet delivered in person. This is a unique type of written communication where the recipient of the message does not see the ‘paper’. Punctuation is very important there too, for a missing punctuation symbol or one mis-used can have global consequences as message is read aloud.

Luckily, for we writers of fiction, punctuation is important but no one is likely to lose their life over it. However, the feeling the author is trying to convey can be missed, sludged, and cause enough confusion that even a good reader gives up. Punctuation conveys mood and emotions and is an essential building block of the writing craft—like wall studs in a house. You have nothing without them and you don’t have much if they don’t do their job.

Here are a couple of books that are useful references. They are small and easily read:

Strunk and White The Elements of Style

Essentials of English


Reese Mobley said...

Great post, Nina. Punctuation is something I learned in school and then forgot and now I'm trying to learn it again. It's funny what an ill placed comma can do for a sentence. Thanks.

Becky A said...

Hi Nina,
Did you and Jeannie conspire against me? Punctuation and grammar, aacckk! That said, I am favorably impressed by both of you. Your blogs were both clear and informative, which is what I need.
I have always felt that punctuation should be used in whatever way is best to convey what the writer is trying to say. Maybe that's why I don't worry about the rules as much as I probably should. I would rather use punctuation to suit my needs, than to follow all the rules and not get across what I mean.
(I think I'm becoming a rebel in my old age!)
Thanks for trying to keep me on the straight and narrow, Becky

PS: I think sentence number two is the correct answer!! (Woman, without her, man is lost, hungry and probably wearing week old underwear!)

Nina Sipes said...

I'm horrible at punctuation and indeed have made many errors in this post. I just saw one. DANG-it.

Nina Sipes said...

That man? He's probably already moved in another woman.

PS: They tend to do that.

Rox Delaney said...

As Nina's post said so well, punctuation is important. Commas were always my problem in school. I used too many. Guess what? I sometimes still do, although part of that is because of "house style."

The first of the two books Nina mentioned is a standard college book. The second is one I received as part of a writing course. I like the second book the best, because it's easier to understand and has more examples. (I'm visual. I need examples. -grin-) I can recommend both. :)

If you're looking to buy something a little different, there's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Punctuation. It's available at all the usual online bookstores: Amazon, B&N, Borders, etc. and can probably be found at local B&N stores.

But you don't necessarily need to buy any of the books. There are websites devoted to punctuation and grammar.

Guide to Grammar and Style

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

If neither of those help, do a search for *grammar and punctuation* for more.

We all need a little help. After all, we're writers, not copy editors. -grin- But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to do the best job we can when it comes to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The cleaner your submission is, the less reason an editor has for rejecting it. :)

I really am a stickler for good grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Does that mean I always get it right? Oh, no, I have my own problems, but I'll take the time to look up whatever I'm not sure about or don't know, and I'll correct it. My fingers, on the other hand, do whatever they want.

Jeannie said...

Leave it to you, Nina, to find a way to make a post about punctuation unique and interesting. (Loved the museum!)

Like everyone else I struggle with proper punctuation. I have a tendency to want to put commas in as reading breath pauses whether it's correct to do so or not.

I've kept different grammar books over the years, but like Rox I find going online to check a grammar or punctuation question convenient. Of course, one can suddenly and painfully be cut off from online access, so keeping reference books is a good idea.

Jeannie said...


I'm not aware of conspiring with Nina against you, but it could be one of those spooky October telepathy things.

Okay, I can't resist torturing you more. Do you know what grammar is? It's the woman who married grampar.

I'm gone!:-)

Joan Vincent said...

Great writing and a lesson all in one, Nina! I learned more about grammar teaching it than I ever did studying it. When I started to teach Works to gradeschoolers I never succeeded in convincing most of them that spell and grammar check are only as good as their knowledge.

Starla Kaye said...

As Reese said, punctuation was something I learned in school (along with way too much math) that seems to have faded from my memories. With the help of my editors and writing friends on occasion, I am working hard to relearn punctuation and proper grammar. I used to think commas were my friends...evidently not. Oh well.

Nina Sipes said...

You all are so kind to say the article is entertaining. When punctuation is right, it isn't noticeable. When it is wrong--well famous battles have been lost and the living get to argue over who had the message wrong.

I'm so glad to get those on-line links! The books are helpful, but can't answer every question. Or maybe they do and I don't like the answer. With the links I can check some things I've gotten completely squirreled up without having to bother the prairie rose group.....

Penny Rader said...

Love the rabbit rock, Nina! Punctuation usually comes fairly easily to me, but there are times I'm just not sure how it should be. Thanks for the links, Rox! Martha B. mentioned a really good grammar book at one of our meetings a few years ago, but I don't remember the title. I like books and sites that have lots of examples.