Punctuation & Grammar: Your Most Elegant Tools

In her book, “Steering the Craft,” Ursula Le Guin says, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.”

I really believe that, when it comes to learning the “rules” of punctuation and grammar, a lot of writers really are afraid to spend much time thinking about them. We really like to focus on content—on creating those majestic visions in the minds of our readers, or on how the plot moves forward, or the complexity of our characters. Minutiae like commas and dashes are so small that they fall through the cracks of the grander, large-scale endeavor of telling a story. It’s completely understandable.

But unfortunately, in choosing a sledgehammer over a scalpel, our stories lose their intricacy and delicacy. Worlds are brought to life through the details and, most importantly, the feelings that are invoked.

All that said, it’s hard to blame writers for fearing punctuation and grammar. For most of us, our exposure to these extended to red slashes in English exams that clearly informed us we had chosen “wrong” by putting a comma in one place instead of another.

In my mind, this is an outright travesty. The rules of punctuation and grammar should not be stumbling blocks but tools to help us express meaning more clearly. It’s true that there are some clear rights and wrongs in where you might put a period or a question mark or a comma, but ultimately, as the writer, you get to decide how you want to use these tools. If you communicate clearly, then you used them right. If your reader doesn’t understand your meaning (or takes the wrong meaning altogether), then you used them wrong. It’s as simple as that.

Expert grammarians disagree with each other all the time. There are dozens of style books written with the purpose of advising writers on how to appropriately approach a sentence, and their advice varies drastically. I recommend you find a style guide you like and run with that. I’m a big fan of Strunk & White, as well as The Chicago Manual of Style. (These are both very popular among writers, but even these two are totally different guides. One could fit in your pocket, and the other might not even fit in your suitcase.)

Ursula Le Guin went on to say that the important thing for a writer is “to know what you’re doing with language and why. This involves knowing usage and punctuation well enough to use them skillfully, not as rules that impede you but as tools that serve you.” I wholeheartedly agree. When we go boldly forward with the right tools and a solid goal, we’re bound to go in a good direction.

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