ON CRAFT ǀ The Power of Punctuation

Beep, Bop, Blurp!

For so many of us, cell phones and text communication have made the rules of grammar and punctuation obsolete. Indeed, in a world full of messages which are, on average, between five and nine words, is punctuation even necessary anymore? In a word, yes, but for those of us seriously pursuing writing as a career, that yes had better be an absolutely, because without punctuation, our sentences lose clarity, and our readers lose interest. That being said, let’s take a look at two of the most commonly misused pieces of punctuation.

The Ellipsis

The Ellipsis – three consecutive periods (…) – is one of the many tools at our disposal at writers, but unfortunately it’s misused more often than any piece of punctuation I’ve seen. Ellipses are not meant to be used at the end of a sentence nor are they used to indicate a pause or breath, and they’re certainly not used to separate items in a list. So what’s the proper use for an ellipsis?

An ellipsis is used to denote an omission of text be it a single word or an entire paragraph. The idea behind it goes like this: whenever you see an ellipsis, it means that the writer decided that the text being omitted was implied, unnecessary, or already understood, and keeping it in the writing would’ve been redundant or superfluous. Take a look at the example below.

“James was a hard-working man who grew up on the outskirts of a sinkhole deeper than the Marianas Trench which taught him how to appreciate what he has.”

As a whole, this statement is grammatically correct, but let’s say the author wants to shorten it up a little using an ellipsis. Here’s how it could look after the edit.

“James was a hard-working man who grew up on the outskirts of a sinkhole … which taught him how to appreciate what he has.”

Make sense? The omitted text is still represented, but since it wasn’t vitally important to the statement, using an ellipsis keeps the rambling off the page.

The Colon

Often confused with its cousin, the semicolon, a colon is made of two identical dots, one on top of the other, and its uses are varied. They can be used in telling the time, mathematical ratios and comparisons, and formal letters and salutations, but specifically, I want to take a look at the colon’s use in writing poetry and prose as the beginning of an explanation.

“Jack enjoys tennis: the smell of the court, the peaceful silence, and the feel of the sun on his skin.”

“I need many items from the store: bananas, oatmeal, chard, chia, and almond milk to name a few.”

“You worked so hard for this: enjoy your graduation party!”

All of these are examples of the colon’s proper use. As you can see, each sentence uses a colon to further define the phrase before it. What does Jack enjoy about tennis? What do I need from the store? What did you work so hard for?

When using a colon, what comes before it should always be explained by what comes after (a particularly useful tool in poetry, wouldn’t you agree?).

[Insert Mechanical Sound Here]

I understand the temptation to completely forego punctuation in text messages and small-form communique, and I even understand the compulsion to use punctuation when I don’t fully understand how to use it, but at the end of the day, all those robotic noises are vital to your role as a writer; the blips, dots, slashes, and other minor pen scratches result in a piece of writing that is both easy to read and comprehend not only for your publisher and editors but also for the people you’re hoping will read and enjoy your work. Punctuation is the breath of writing: it provides personality, soundly communicates complex thought, and it keeps us breathing as we read by providing pauses, rests, and natural breaks in complicated ideas. If you don’t believe me, try reading this article without any punctuation whatsoever, and then tell me which made more sense.

Samuel Blake ǀ @herheart_oncraft
Her Heart Poetry’s ON CRAFT area will be evolving over the coming months. Samuel’s goal is to both educate and inspire readers and writers of all calibres. ON CRAFT articles will be published to teach about a different facet of creative writing.