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Writing: Putting the Fun into Punctuation

headshot of Dominic Selwood, author of Punctuation without Tears
headshot of Dominic Selwood, author of Punctuation without Tears

Dominic Selwood, writer, journalist, barrister – and evangelist for punctuation

Do you you discover checking punctuation a chore moderately than a pleasure? Are you cautious of horror tales of readers leaving 1* evaluations once they spot a misplaced apostrophe? Don’t fear, you’re in good firm – even Shakespeare was no nice shakes at punctuation.

That’s why it’s a tonic to speak to ALLi writer Dominic Selwood, who delights in punctuation a lot in order that he’s taken the time to write down a brand new information to punctuation for the 21st century author. In the present day he tells us why – and in addition helps us study to cease worrying and love punctuation!

(In the pursuits of objectivity, we should always state that different punctuation guides can be found.)



Why did you determine to put in writing a e-book like this?

Punctuation With out Tears began as a slim — and hopefully humorous — information for my teenage youngsters. I confirmed it to some buddies, after which realized that fairly a couple of adults need a fast information to punctuation: for work, for a writing challenge, or simply usually to brush up. A lot of faculties have already put the guide on their curriculum, and indie author specialists like J F Penn have beneficial it to their writing communities as a useful information. I don’t have a PhD in punctuation (you’ll be relieved to know!) however, as a journalist, writer, and barrister, I’ve spent my profession writing, and I’m a real believer that getting on prime of punctuation is considered one of the greatest issues you are able to do for your self as a author.

Why does punctuation trigger authors a lot nervousness?

No one turns into an writer as a result of punctuation speaks to them a lot they need to spend their life admiring colons.

Most authors simply need to inform tales or talk details or opinions. You possibly can guess Shakespeare wasn’t enthusiastic about the glories of the apostrophe when plotting Romeo and Juliet (and truly, by trendy requirements, Shakespeare’s unique punctuation was throughout the place). Punctuation is one thing authors simply have to make use of, like a painter has to interact with the physicality of brushes and canvases. That is the place punctuation nervousness is available in, as a result of it’s typically an afterthought, and writers often have traumatic reminiscences of English classes at college.

The excellent news is that it’s completely attainable to punctuate magnificently while not having to study an entire load of complicated grammar guidelines.

Is it ever too late to study punctuation guidelines? Is there such a factor as punctuation dyslexia the place individuals simply have a psychological block about it?

It’s completely by no means too late. Attending to grips with punctuation is definitely quite simple. (You possibly can learn Punctuation With out Tears in an hour and know all the things you should know!)

My primary tip is that when you’re confused about punctuation, wipe your reminiscence banks, learn my e-book, and also you’ll be an skilled punctuator. It’s not like studying a overseas language. There are only a few easy guidelines..

I sincerely consider that punctuation is straightforward and everybody can grasp it!

How did you study punctuation at college, and did it assist or hinder?

cartoon from Punctuation without TearsI used to be made to study and recite lengthy lists of grammar guidelines, which was skull-numbingly uninteresting. Most of additionally it is largely ineffective now, as writing has modified a lot since then. The factor these classes actually taught me was what a room of 24 bored individuals appeared like. Hopefully Punctuation With out Tears makes it barely extra bearable, and even a bit enjoyable! That was certainly one of the causes for asking artist Delia Johnson as an example the books, as humorous footage can actually assist make examples extra memorable. She’s finished a tremendous job. I’m particularly keen on Cthulhu remonstrating with a shark bullying a phalanx of prawns.

In your profession as a journalist, did you need to relearn it to go well with home types and have been your private preferences overruled?

Not likely. I’m very pleased to go together with totally different home types. I’ve my private preferences (like -ize and the Oxford comma — extra on these later), however punctuation is only a device, and it’s good to be versatile. If there’s a real uncertainty, most editors I’ve been fortunate sufficient to work with are often completely satisfied to brew up a cup of tea and sit down to talk it via.


You advocate a specific amount of rest of the commonplace guidelines – in contrast to e e cummings who went proper off piste. How far can one do this with out distracting the reader from the message in the textual content, and is that too harmful a recreation to danger enjoying?

e e cummings was into some fairly area of interest and excessive experimentation. He had no intention of being mainstream, and was screaming to the world, ‘Look at me! I’m an artist!’ There’s nothing flawed with that, and his writing definitely brightened up English classes for me at college.

Nevertheless, for many of us, for those who’re making an attempt to inform a narrative or create a bit of factual writing, you need the punctuation to do its job invisibly, giving your writing form and momentum behind the scenes.

It ought to by no means take the limelight — until you are attempting to be like e e cummings. Punctuation must make all the things occur whereas staying discreetly unobtrusive. Like Jeeves.

Provided that faculties are extra liberal today with spelling at an early age, giving precedence to fluency earlier than homing in on accuracy, do you assume the similar ought to occur with punctuation?

100 per cent. Writing is about concepts. In case you mark a younger youngster’s story and provides it again with corrections throughout it since you didn’t like their punctuation, you’re in all probability placing the youngster off writing. That’s a tragedy, and completely avoidable. The technicalities of excellent punctuation can come later.


What punctuation error do you assume individuals ought to be much less judgmental/harsh about?

I’m fairly baffled that some individuals retain a inflexible insistence that you must by no means write ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘I’ll’, ‘you’ve’, ‘we’ll’, and different abbreviations. They need you to put in writing the phrases out in full, like 50 years in the past: ‘cannot’, ‘will not’, ‘I will’, ‘you have’, ‘we will’, and so on. It was as soon as a rule, however it merely isn’t any extra.

These days there’s an enormous distinction between formal and casual writing.

When you’re writing a novel or a weblog (like this), then it’s completely positive to make use of abbreviations as a result of it’s how all of us converse. You in all probability need to stick with the formal strategy for enterprise or technical writing, nevertheless it sounds very stilted in additional relaxed trendy contexts.

Ought to the semi-colon grow to be punctuation’s equal to the dodo?

No! Kurt Vonnegut informed his writing courses it was a hermaphrodite representing completely nothing besides that you simply went to school. And George Orwell famously declared that he wrote Coming Up for Air and not using a single semicolon (in reality, he used three). However they’re each lacking the level.

When you look inside a carpenter’s toolbox, you’ll see all types of weird instruments. Some in all probability don’t get used fairly often. However every one exists as a result of it does one thing higher than the different instruments. The semicolon is strictly the similar. There are issues that solely it could possibly do.

We even have only a few punctuation marks with which to form our writing, so why would we throw one among them away? The semicolon is a lovely punctuation mark, and we should always all be militant about maintaining it.

The Oxford comma – talk about! What’s it and why does it matter, if certainly it does matter?

Ah — the Oxford comma! How on earth did such a easy concept turn into so controversial?

Properly, the important purpose is that for many years faculty academics marked it as incorrect.

For many who need a fast reminder, the Oxford comma is whenever you put a comma earlier than the third merchandise in an inventory. For instance, ‘The books that made Snow White happiest were: Ant and Bee, The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, and The Necronomicon’. It’s truly not simply an Oxford quirk; it’s additionally referred to as the Harvard comma, the collection comma, or the serial comma, and it’s undoubtedly not improper. Many home types use it, and everybody ought to be happy so as to add the comma in the event that they need to. It’s down to non-public style. That stated, there are occasions when it’s essential. When you take a look at this sentence, it might have two fairly totally different meanings. ‘Drago gave the chocolate crucifixes to his brothers, Vlad and Wadim’. An Oxford comma clears it up completely: ‘Drago gave the chocolate crucifixes to his brothers, Vlad, and Wadim’.

When you might introduce one new punctuation mark, what wouldn’t it be and the way would you employ it?

I’m an enormous fan of the interrobang (‽). I’m endlessly utilizing ‘?!’ in e-mails and texts, and I really like the concept of mixing them into one. I’m all for it. In the early days of printing there have been many punctuation marks we’ve now dropped. Punctuation evolves. I’m all in favour of individuals popularizing new ones!

Are there any archaic punctuation marks you’d wish to revive? Or any punctuation mark that you simply assume must be extra extensively used?

Completely. I really like the Tironian Et. It seems like a ‘7’ with a bar by means of it, and it’s an abbreviation for ‘and’, identical to an ampersand (&). It has an awesome historical past, because it was invented by Tiro — Cicero’s secretary and slave — together with about four,000 different shorthand symbols, and it remained well-liked into comparatively trendy occasions. It’s nonetheless utilized in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. I want to start out a society to convey it again. I feel it’s significantly elegant, particularly when hand writing.


What are the causes behind the distinction between the U.S. and British English software of the -ize/-ise suffix?

I’m fairly assured that at any given second somebody in the UK is being informed off for utilizing -ize as a result of the individual talking says -ize is American and never British. In truth, nothing could possibly be extra fallacious!

Our superb language has all the time used -ize, as a result of it comes instantly from the Greek suffix -izein. When French turned fashionable in the seventeenth century, literary fashionistas in Britain began copying the French -ise. In the meantime, English audio system in the U.S. stayed agency and continued to make use of -ize, and when Webster revealed his dictionary in 1828 with -ize all through, that spelling turned a everlasting function of U.S. English.

Right here in Britain, we’ve ended up with each spellings, as a lot of British writers stayed true. Simply seize any Jane Austen, Dickens, Churchill, Tolkien, Agatha Christie or hundreds of others and also you’ll see -ize in all its glory.

Oxford College Press nonetheless makes use of it, as do most British educational journals. The Occasions newspaper solely switched to -ise in 1992 as a result of they thought it was easier.

So, the backside line is that -ize was invented in medieval Britain and is as conventional as fish and chips, cricket, and lukewarm beer.

Oscar Wilde claimed that “the Americans and the British are identical in all respects except, of course, their language” – to what extent does the similar apply to punctuation?

Wilde is all the time good for a witticism. Nevertheless, this one doesn’t actually work for punctuation, nearly as good punctuation type is equivalent in each nations. There are a few actually minor exceptions, however they’re not more likely to hassle most individuals. One is that some U.S. fashion manuals choose a capital letter after a colon if adopted by an entire sentence. For instance, ‘Simba’s secret was out: He hated her Chihuahua’. The opposite is that American and British publishers can have totally different opinions on whether or not they need to see a comma inside or outdoors a citation mark. U.S. publishers are likely to want holding it inside. As I say, for many day-to-day writing, nobody goes to be very affected by both of those minor variations, and you may principally assume that good U.S. and British punctuation is similar.


To what extent does context have an effect on punctuation?

Massively. For those who sit down in the morning to write down a report in your experiments with mind surgical procedure and you then’re again at your keyboard once more in the night to complete a youngsters’s guide on renegade pirate hamsters, you’re going to make use of a unique register of vocabulary, totally different sentence and paragraph lengths, and a unique type of punctuation.

Punctuation helps the language, so it’ll naturally change together with the style of what you’re writing.

What every punctuation mark does won’t alter, however you’ll punctuate in a different way to go well with the context. In the mind surgical procedure report you’re possible to make use of longer sentences, colons, dashes, and a number of several types of brackets. For the renegade pirate hamsters you’ll in all probability find yourself with brief sentences and simply full stops and commas.

What would you say to followers of Strunk & White and Hart’s Guidelines – is it time to throw them out the window or is there room for all approaches?

These are tremendous books. Dipping into them will hearth your creativeness about what is feasible and the way the language has advanced. Nevertheless, they have a tendency to age shortly as a result of fashion strikes on. It wasn’t way back that you simply needed to write in full sentences. Today — besides in the most formal writing — nobody cares. Truthfully. Growth. There, that’s two sentences with no verbs (in different phrases, they’re not technically sentences in any respect). Nevertheless it doesn’t matter. We now write how we converse. So I strategy Strunk & White and Hart’s Guidelines with a bit of warning, They’re fascinating they usually supply fantastic historical past and color, however in case you comply with them slavishly your writing dangers being a bit dry.

What did the Romans do for punctuation?

another cartoon from Punctutaion without TearsDon’t get me began! I’m completely fascinated with the historical past of punctuation. I attempt to maintain it out of the ebook as a lot as attainable, however I can’t resist a number of mentions of the extra fascinating bits. Principally, the Greeks and Romans didn’t have standardized punctuation marks like we do. Many early classical texts truly haven’t any punctuation marks in any respect. Worse, they often additionally haven’t any areas.


Over time they developed quite a lot of rudimentary methods of punctuation. However it wasn’t actually till a number of centuries after printing had turn out to be actually established that punctuation started to be correctly standardized.


What do you consider Orwell’s well-known guidelines of writing?

Orwell was a tremendous story teller. What a terrifying understanding of individuals! Throughout the Chilly Conflict, commentators have been endlessly noting how superb it was that Orwell had predicted issues so precisely. Truly, wanting round the world now, with #fakenews and the institutional doublespeak that has grow to be regular political dialogue, he must be acknowledged as a prophet.

His writing type is sensible. It’s completely *him*. However I don’t assume it’s anybody else.

Simply as musicians discover their very own voice, so do writers. I can’t see the level of encouraging anybody to repeat anybody else slavishly. I feel the spirit of Orwell’s guidelines — which boil right down to ‘keep it simple’ — is spot on. However I don’t agree that you must by no means use a metaphor or simile you’ve seen in print, and I undoubtedly don’t agree you could by no means use a overseas phrase if there’s an English one. Non!

That stated, his one rule that I’m positive completely everybody agrees with is, ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ You actually can’t argue with that.

What are your one key precept and three golden guidelines of writing?

My guideline is, ‘Do whatever makes your writing easiest to understand’.

Which will sound glib, however what I imply is that you need to all the time examine whether or not your sentence means precisely what you need it to imply and nothing else (until you need a pun or double entendre). When you spot that it’s ambiguous, 9 occasions out of 10 you’ll be able to repair it by altering the phrase order or re-punctuating it.

My three golden guidelines are quite simple: ‘Be clear’, ‘Be creative’, and ‘Be consistent’.

  • Being clear doesn’t actually need any rationalization: be daring and use punctuation confidently.
  • Being artistic means precisely that. You’ve gotten many decisions with punctuation. Be happy to experiment. Discover your personal voice.
  • Being constant is important. Nobody needs to learn a bit of textual content that retains chopping and altering its punctuation type. For instance, in case you’re utilizing the Oxford comma, then persist with it for the entire piece of writing. Inconsistency drives editors to distraction, and is sort of more likely to convey your pretty manuscript into the shredder.

Nowadays in British faculties they discuss with SPAG classes – Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation – are you able to consider a greater acronym that fits your angle to the written phrase/punctuation?

Completely. ‘CCC’: Readability, Creativity, and Consistency.


Why did you self-publish it – are the Massive 5 cautious of flouting the normal punctuation textbooks?

An enormous writer needed the guide, then pulled out as a result of their advertising group wasn’t used to such a brief ebook and received nervous. I really like indie publishing. I get enthusiastic about every little thing to do with guide design and manufacturing. So, slightly than wait one other 12 to 18 months for a special writer to take it and launch it, I made a decision to do it myself. I additionally needed to regulate pricing — particularly the e-book — to ensure it was accessible to youngsters and younger writers.

Punctuation guides often have minimalist, clear covers – why did you go for a psychedelic cowl? 

highly colourful cover of Dominic Selwood's Punctuation without Tears

The cheery cowl of Dominic Selwood’s new information means that studying punctuation may be enjoyable and thrilling!

Ooooh. Cowl design. Probably the most controversial matter in indie publishing! I labored with Delia on this, too, and needed her to design one thing with two parts.

The primary and most essential facet is that I needed it to scream ‘fun’.

Many individuals see grammar and punctuation as uninteresting topics (partly due to the insipid covers of the previous, maybe). I needed one thing that shouted out that the guide was vigorous, exuberant, glad, and a refreshing strategy to punctuation.

The second cause I went for one thing so in-your-face is that a ebook’s cowl is one in every of the few methods a ebook will get observed by consumers shopping a shelf or display. I’m delighted with the outcome. It’s arresting, immediately makes me smile, and I’ve been despatched photographs of schoolchildren carrying this hyper-colourful little e-book to high school, which actually made my day!


Do you will have a favorite punctuation gaffe that you simply’ve seen that you simply’d wish to share?

Properly, the funniest ones are often unprintable. It’s genuinely shocking how typically these slip underneath the radar, often in newspaper headlines. They all the time make me smile, though I really feel sorry for the poor, harassed sub-editor who’s going to get shouted at for it.  I beloved the journal cowl that learn:

Rachel Ray
finds inspiration
in cooking
her household
and her canine

I merely couldn’t consider the headline that learn:

Apostrophe? Its too complicated, says council

And eventually, this can be too impolite, so please look away if simply offended, a U.S. newspaper lately revealed a daring banner headline studying, ‘Students get first hand job experience’. Significantly individuals, keep in mind your hyphens!

What’s your pet hate in punctuation?

Textual content in brackets (parentheses for these in the U.S.) that goes on so lengthy you possibly can’t keep in mind in case you’re nonetheless in the brackets or when you imagined the entire factor.

One other one which bothers me is when individuals insist on placing a full cease (interval, for these in the U.S.) after ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Dr’, and so forth. A full cease at the finish of a phrase signifies that letters have been chopped off at that actual level. So it will be proper to make use of the full cease for ‘Prof.’ or ‘Fri.’ or one thing like that. However not for phrases like ‘Dr’, that are contractions relatively than abbreviations. There! Is that geeky sufficient?

OVER TO YOU What are your punctuation pet hates? What’s the greatest error you’ve ever noticed? (You see, punctuation might be enjoyable!)

#Indieauthors – learn how to cease worrying about #punctuation! Our interview with @DominicSelwood exhibits it might even be enjoyable! #ww #writing #modifying Click on To Tweet

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