Practical Punctuation

You sit in your psychologist’s chair, half reclined, your hands steepled over your belly. The good doctor turns to you inquisitorially and asks, “And how did that make you feel?”

Like crap, you think to yourself, but you shrug and avoid eye contact. Last week you failed an essay. Normally you would shrug off any failure, but this one stung, especially knowing how you failed it. Comma splices, run-on sentences… What even is a comma splice anyway? And the worst of it all is the fact that the more you try to study grammar and punctuation, the less sense it makes. Subjects and predicates and coordinate conjunctions. Nobody really understands that stuff, really. At least, that’s what you tell yourself.

You suddenly turn to the doc after a sullen silence. “How can I learn to punctuate? I don’t understand—I know what looks right, but that’s not enough, apparently. And studying punctuation? It’s like reading Morse code. And I don’t even know how to do that.”

The doc listens, head cocked, a half smile making its way across his lips. “Have you tried reading fiction?”

“Reading fiction? Like, books? Novels, I mean?”

“Yes. ‘Like’ books.” He laughs to himself. “You must have a favourite author. …No? Well, what about a favourite genre?”

You scrunch up your forehead. Favourite genre, eh? Romance? No no, that stuff’s not for me. Historical fiction? Maybe. If the characters were interesting. You think harder. “I really like Game of Thrones.”

“Ah, yes. Great choice. Why not pick something up in the Fantasy genre? There’s tons of wonderful stuff out there. Might I recommend—”

“Wait, wait,” you interrupt, waving a hand. “Where is this going? How is reading a Fantasy novel going to help me with punctuation? Isn’t actually studying punctuation going to help me instead?”

The doc’s second half-smile of the session makes you think that he knows something you don’t.

“And how is actually studying punctuation working out for you?” he asks. It doesn’t look like he wants an answer, so you keep your sarcasm to yourself. He continues, “So first of all, when you read fiction, you are internalizing—and more importantly, contextualizing—the grammar and punctuation, the sentence structure, the vocabulary… all of it. You said you know when something works and when something doesn’t, but you’re not sure how to fix it when it looks wrong. Well, reading fiction strengthens your understanding of the right and wrong of sentence structure and punctuation.”

“So, you’re saying don’t study punctuation.”

The doc sighed. “No, I’m saying that you’ve been studying punctuation incorrectly. You need to read more fiction to contextualize what you already know so that when you understand the ground rules of written English, you can apply them to your own writing. Here.”

He puts down his pad and pencil on a little table next to his chair and stands up. Muttering to himself, he walks over to one of the many overly-stuffed bookshelves lining the spacious office. The general clutter of the office somehow relaxes you; it is as if the regular use of the office and half-disarray of the many books and papers signify the human side of the old doctor, not the PhD that hangs crookedly on the wall.

A triumphant cry sounds from the doc as he slips a thick paperback from a shelf. “Here we are.” As he makes his way back to his seat, he floats the book over to you. You juggle it in your hands for a moment before getting the better of it.

Turning it over in your hands, you read, “The Eye of the World. Robert Jordan.”

“Yes, yes,” The doc confirms, settling himself once again. “A staple of my youth. …Well? Are you going to open it or not? I didn’t get up so you could stare at the cover.”

You clear your throat. The cover is very nicely done, you admit to yourself. “Any page?”

“Any page.”

You do so. “What am I supposed to be looking for?”

“Tell me what you see.”

“Words. Lots of them,” you laugh.

“I know that, you dummy. More specifically. What do you see?” He asks again, his voice more pressing, stressing the last syllable to mean more than just the word.

“I see… Punctuation—commas, periods. Lots of quotation marks. It looks like there is an argument happening. There’s lots of the—what do you call the big dash?”

“An em dash. Great piece of punctuation, that.”

“Yeah. Lots of em… Lots of those. Also, the usual words. Nouns, verbs. Wow, really strong verbs.” You let your eyes do more than just scan and you fall ever so slightly into the book. Everything… works. The sentence structure is varied with some very long, winding sentences and some purposefully short, powerful ones. The long sentences flow with commas and coordinate conjunctions; the short ones are bullets, sometimes lacking a subject, just for impact. And the dialogue is filled with complex sentences, punctuated with exclamations and question marks and ellipses.

You have to tear your eyes away from the page. “I think I get what you’re saying.”

“And what is it that I’m saying?” He waits patiently for your answer, already knowing what you will say.

“I need to develop my base instinct about grammar and punctuation by contextualizing what I already know. Hopefully, then, I will be able to edit my writing.”

The doc gives me a boyish grin. “Absolutely right. And you will be able to do more than just that; you will be able to increase your reading comprehension at the same time.”

You nod to yourself.

A little clock over the open window chimes, and the old man looks startled. “Well, why don’t you keep that until next month.”

“Thanks,” you say. You absentmindedly turn the book over in your hands. “I guess time’s up?”

“Indeed it is. ‘Till next time, young chap.”

“See you.” You leave the office, knowing there is much reading to do, but looking at the book in your hands, you think it might not be so bad.