Shakespeare couldn’t punctuate for toffee. Charlotte Brontë found it all ‘very puzzling’, and left her publisher to punctuate Jane Eyre. Byron confessed he was rather useless at the whole affair. But you, as a word-artist, need to triumph where they fell. And, if you need a reason to focus, look up the case in Maine earlier this year in which a dairy company lost $5m over a comma. If you feel you might want to brush up, here are a few quick tips.
Throw away the grammar book
You don’t need to be the grammar equivalent of a sushi chef to punctuate well. There are only a few cardinal rules and sins, and you don’t require any formal grammar awareness to master them, relax, and punctuate with confidence.
Keep sentences short
The days when Dickens could wow his starstruck fans with a sentence running to several hundred words are – thankfully – long gone. Modern readers want short sentences. Bite-size chunks are more instantly digestible, and far less ambiguous.
Lots of commas
Our legal forebears delighted in furlongs of legalese with no commas. Don’t even think about doing this today. Commas are your best friend. They bring order out of chaos. Use them joyfully. If you’re unsure where they go, put a comma where you would naturally pause when reading aloud: Feeling homesick Cthulhu snuggled his tentacles up under the duvet. There’s only one place to pause: Feeling homesick, Cthulhu snuggled his tentacles up under the duvet. This quick hack will see you right 99% of the time.
Brackets are the Devil’s work. They break the flow. Use commas or dashes instead. You only really need brackets if the writing is technical and requires multiple asides: To assemble the guillotine, insert the upright case (Part A) into the long bench (Part B), then slot in the slanted blade (Part C). As always when working in your home workshop, watch your fingers. When completed, keep safely away from children and aristocrats.
They are also fine for source references or date ranges: The insane Countess Bathory (1560–1614) loved a good blood bath.
In the main, avoid them. (Although sometimes whole sentences in brackets can work.)
"Our legal forebears delighted in furlongs of legalese with no commas. Don’t even think about doing this today. Commas are your best friend"
Howler 1 – greengrocer’s apostrophe
Never, ever, EVER use an apostrophe to make a plural. You see it everywhere now, but it’s not okay on any level: Fresh plum’s; Cold drink’s; MP3’s; FAQ’s. These should all make your eyes bleed.
Howler 2 – comma splice
These days, in informal writing, sentences can be just one word. This can have a terrific effect. Honestly. Don’t misunderstand me. In formal legal writing like pleadings, orders, skeletons, opinions, etc, you absolutely still need proper sentences. However, in a piece of narrative for a statement or something less formal you may like more freedom. But, please, this new informality does not mean you can ever use a comma splice. You can’t. Don’t do it.
Goldilocks swung the nunchuk, she liked its weight. The woodsman hated bunnies, he hated them with a Luciferian mania. Each of these examples is two complete sentences. They need to be separated by full stops. If you’re daring, you might try semicolons. If you’re very fancy, you may even go for colons. But you cannot use commas. It looks wrong, feels wrong, and will haunt you.
Style point – Oxford comma: yes or no?
It’s up to you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sometimes it’s indispensable. If you take it away in this example, you’re left with litigation beckoning: Drago gave the chocolate crucifixes to his brothers, Vlad, and Wadim.
Punctuation demands consistency. If you’re going to use the Oxford comma in a piece of writing, do it throughout. Don’t chop and change.
Style point – whether to -ise or -ize?
You have a genuinely free choice here. The traditional English spelling is -ize. The rather effete -ise only drifted in during the seventeenth century to ape French ways, which were fashionable at the time. If you want to be like Chaucer, Jane Austen, Dickens, Darwin, Orwell, Churchill, Tolkien and the rest, then use -ize with pride.
Punctuation and writing style say a lot about you. Find your voice, and enjoy it.
Dominic Selwood is a barrister. His latest book, Punctuation Without Tears, is a short, clear, funny and non-technical guide to all the punctuation you’ll ever need to know (Corax, £7.99).