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Topic: Do punctuation matter?

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Subject: Do punctuation matter?
Date Posted: 1/6/2015 5:51 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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The edition I'm reading of A Hazard of New Fortunes, by William Dean Howells, has a "Note on the Text" at the back.  It informs: "This Signet Classic edition is reprinted from the first edition, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, in 1890.  The spelling and punctuation have been brought into conformity with modern American usage."

The sentences are l o n g, but this bothers me not at all, because the (judicious) punctuation helps me keep track of where the sentence is going.  I call such sentences "carpentered" or "well-carpentered", and for some reason this amuses my physicist-husband. 

On the other hand, with some contemporary fiction, while reading silently, I've found myself 'stuttering' inside my head while reading 'stop-start' sentences punctuated with dashes and little strings of dots, and maybe parenthetical phrases and what not. 

I'm just not very adept at all at reading "stream of consciousness" text.  And, I'm not at all sure it would get any easier were I to read lots and lots of it.

Date Posted: 1/7/2015 5:13 AM ET
Member Since: 9/25/2006
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Let's eat kids.

Let's eat, kids.

Punctuation saves lives.

 

Date Posted: 1/8/2015 4:28 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
Posts: 25,000
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Yes, it matters. Not only for the safety of edible children, but for one's sanity. 

Date Posted: 1/9/2015 5:06 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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Yeah, yeah, yeah, Matt and Laura, I know that.  But what I wanted to hear your comments upon was the heavy use of dashes, dots, and parenthetical words in contemporary prose.   I understand what I am to infer from a comma, a semi-colon, a period, an opening or closing quotation mark, an interrogation mark, and/or an exclamation mark, BUT what am I supposed to infer from a short burst of dashes?  Does the idiosyncratic use of modern American usage in punctuation add something important to an author's output?

One of the examples of the importance of judicious punctuation that used to be taught in journalism schools was the comma placement in these two telegraph messages sent by the children of a very sick mother to their traveling salesman father:

"Mother not getting any better, hurry home quick"

and

"Mother not getting any, better hurry home quick"

P.S.   Have any of you noticed how objective pronouns are disappearing in television programs?   The other night I heard a character say something about "between you and I".   Arrggghhhh!



Last Edited on: 1/9/15 5:08 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 1/9/2015 9:33 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
Posts: 25,000
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But what I wanted to hear your comments upon was the heavy use of dashes, dots, and parenthetical words in contemporary prose... what am I supposed to infer from a short burst of dashes?  

 

Me? Personally? I dunno. I've never experienced what you describe. The oddest misuse of punctuation that I've encountered is the total absence of quotation marks in dialogue. It takes some getting used to and I'd only get used to it if the content was worthwhile. If I am not mistaken, "Cold Mountain" didn't have quotation marks. 

I can tell you that if I came across punctuation gobbeldygook like you describe I would infer the writer is trying too hard to be different. I don't have time for games with punctuation. If a writer is messin' with punctuation the content is probably substandard. I have better things to do than try to translate unconventional writing. 

Date Posted: 1/10/2015 7:50 AM ET
Member Since: 6/30/2008
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for me I think it depends on whether I'm reading fiction or nonfiction. I see fiction as a work of art and I can usually deal with anything the author wants to try. Nonfiction usually presents a combination of language and idea that can have it's own beauty. But language has to be more correct in nonfiction IMHO.

An example I can recall is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. The construction of the language in that book was a little jarring for the first couple of pages but since it was consistent through the book I adapted to it and had not problem enjoying the book. But I found many people who were so put off by the sentence structure they couldn't read the book.

Date Posted: 1/10/2015 1:38 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
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I remember enjoying Shipping News as well, but I don't remember it being weirdly constructed. Was it one of those books that did not use quotation marks?

Date Posted: 1/10/2015 5:20 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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I recently read the New Zealand author, Janet Frame, for the first time,  She wrote as though her mind was "skittering around like a pea on a hot griddle" as folks would sometimes say back in my native state.   She'd begin what I naively thought was going to be a sentence, and then, a few words along, it would seem as though a memory or inspiration would spring to her mind and she'd break off and go into a parenthetical mini-excursion before picking up with her earlier intention.   I found it rather disconcerting.

My poetry anthology, in introducing E.E. Cummings, includes this: "Taking a cue from the advertiser's layout, Cummings confronted the eye with broken lines of verse, often by words broken up by irrelevant punctuation."  So, there was another way in which punctuation can be used, or abused.

I don't know which baffles me more, weird, idiosyncratic punctuation or NO punctuation.