Colons, commas, and all that…

In these days of acronymic texting and tweets, good praxis for spelling and grammar seems nonexistent. If my old teachers could see what’s going on, though, they’d be aghast or bewildered and think it was all some kind of code. They knew the rules, and even those who weren’t directly involved in teaching their students how to write and speak English would knock off points on a term paper if you didn’t obey them.

Many authors rebelled against this straitjacket of arcane rules, bending them for “literary effect” and perhaps a bit of revenge. That process still continues today. Punctuation has become one of the many victims on the literary crime scene, most of the time only criminal because arcane rules aren’t followed.

Before I do forensics on the punctuation crime scene, let me begin by stating up front there never was just one set of rules. Chaos reigned because there are many “manuals of style,” so many that professors would often announce that the term paper for the class must follow X manual of style. I can even imagine pedantic organizers of a new MFA program debating which one to use and how to enforce it.

Trying to control the evolution and use of language is like trying to juggle globs of oatmeal mixed with gelatin. Good luck! The French invented l’Academie to keep their language pure, for example, but I once knew a very educated Frenchman who insisted that “le weekend” was French and Americans had stolen the word. (The Spanish are more purist, using “el fin de semana,” which works in French too, of course, but is a wee bit longer—now wonder the French use the American word.) Changes creep into languages all the time “On the level” is ubiquitously used in English to mean something is correct, but it came into the language from the Freemason, who weren’t just masons, of course (Mozart was a Freemason).

But I digress. Let’s return to punctuation. Here’s a puzzle I came across in my writing: I has a list of book titles—X, Y, and Z, for example—that was followed by some observation about the books. Title Z ended in a question mark, say “Where Is Sam?” Note that I didn’t and add a period to that sentence. Looks wrong. In my pithy observation, I had: …, “Where Is Sam?”, bla-bla-bla. Looks doubly wrong. My punctuation auto-checker agrees with the lack of a period but says the comma before bla-bla-bla is wrong. Because Bill Gates is probably the last expert on punctuation and grammar you want to consult (I’m still trying to teach MS Word the difference between it’s and its—they have it absolutely backward), I looked elsewhere, but could get nothing definitive.  I arrive at my First Rule: The rules don’t cover everything.

Rules for commas, em dashes, and colons are confusing because they’re too often ambiguous. Colons can often be replaced by a comma, but not always, because the reverse is also true. And sometimes that colon adds an emphasis that works just fine. Now consider: He wrote a novel—an erotic tour de force—thinking he’d start a new series that would outsell the Fifty Shades series. The inclusion of those dashes also makes the statement stronger, but most people would just use commas.

Some people fanatically debate punctuation issues, dividing into warring camps about them. One famous example is the Oxford comma: is the last word in a series before “and” need to be followed by a comma? I break with the rules of American praxis on that one in general, and the NY Times style manual in particular, because I never want any confusion. Consider: I would like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa and the Pope. If you don’t think a comma is needed after “Theresa,” you have a problem. (This example was taken from a NY Times article, by the way.)

So I’ll end by stating Rules Two and Three. Rule Two: Forget the rules but communicate clearly. Rule Three: Be consistent, at least in each novel.

By the way, these rules apply to editors too! Of course, all editors have a more important rule to follow: never, never change an author’s voice. Any attempt to do so should get them fired. An editor can make suggestions and chat about that Oxford comma. S/he can plead for consistency. But s/he must let authors communicate as they will and not destroy their voices.


Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder. Detective Chen is framed for the murder of a U.S. senator. As her partner Castilblanco moves to prove her innocence, they uncover a complex plot involving the underbelly of NYC as well as the overbelly corresponding to the rich and powerful. #3 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” this book is now on sale at Smashwords and is available in all ebook formats. Use coupon code XW55G. Coming soon this spring from Penmore Press: Rembrandt’s Angel, an international tour de force involving a Scotland Yard expert on art heists and an Interpol agent. Chasing down some dealers in stolen artworks suddenly becomes very dangerous!

In libris libertas!

2 Responses to “Colons, commas, and all that…”

  1. Scott Dyson Says:

    I like Rule 3. If you’re going to make a “mistake,” do it consistently throughout the work so that everyone can tell it’s by design. (Of course, you shouldn’t use “further” instead of “farther” or “till” instead of “until” like one writer we both know…:-) )

  2. Steven M. Moore Says:

    When I wrote Rembrandt’s Angel, I had to be consistent with the British English–lorry instead of truck, for example. I reconciled everything by searching for truck. An author can search for quirks like farther and till–you have to realize that the first might be correct and the second too–in dialogue, for example. Things like punctuation are a wee bit more difficult, though, but I’ve always been consistent with the Oxford comma.
    I hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it.