Did you know that Monday was National Punctuation Day? Well, it was in the good ol’ US of A at least.
National Punctuation Day began life in 2004, when a Californian called Jeff Rubin noticed that too many people were misusing colons and abusing apostrophes, so he decided to tour America’s schools with his educational punctuation workshops, posters and T-shirts.
In the sad absence of Jeff’s crazy posters and T-shirts in the UK, I thought I’d take the opportunity to acknowledge National Punctuation Day by educating people about two of my favourite punctuation marks.
These are commonly known as the comma and the exclamation mark.
Now I’m not going to talk about their ‘official’ use; you can easily find that information already. Instead, I’m going to highlight their use in writing-as-speaking, such as when you’re putting a chatty blog post together, and you want it to ‘sound’ as natural as possible.
The reason why the comma and the exclamation mark are my favourite punctuation points is simple; they have the greatest effect on the rhythm needed for effective writing-as-speech.
When you read, punctuation acts as useful signposts for your brain, helping to guide you smoothly through the words. For example, I’ve started a new sentence here, which your mind was ready for because there was a full stop at the end of the last one.
Punctuation, therefore, is your great ally in the quest to ‘sound’ natural in words. Used wrongly, the comma will act as an awkward and stuttery pause, while the exclamation mark will make everything you say sound rushed and overexcited.
If you’re worrying that you have to be an expert grammarian to get it right, don’t! It’s easy. For instance, if you’re considering whether or not to use a comma in a sentence, say it out loud and see where you would naturally pause. Insert your comma there.
Exclamation marks, meanwhile, can be very effective when used sparingly (and never, ever use more than one at a time!)
A sentence that finishes with an exclamation mark will rise in tone and pace towards the end, such as: “we planned a birthday party and we all jumped out and shouted ‘surprise!”
Overuse of exclamation marks is actually very common when people first start writing and they want to ‘sound’ fun and upbeat, when in reality if you litter your sentences with unneeded exclamation marks, you’ll ‘sound’ jumpy and overexcited throughout. So think about whether you really need them – again, by reading your sentence out loud.
A good rule of thumb is to always remember that when you’re writing, your choice of words sets the character of a piece, while punctuation sets the rhythm.
Something to keep in mind as you compose your next blog post, maybe – and by the way, I’ve got no idea if this is how Jeff Rubin teaches punctuation in his famous workshops.
(It probably isn’t).