After three years of intense focus on therapy and personal growth, I'm finally hitting the keys again and will be jumping into NaNoWriMo on November 1st, 2016. Stay tuned for updates!

Sunday 10 March 2013


Well, this week I’m heading back to basics with my plunder.  I just finished reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss for the second (or possibly third or fourth time).  I can still remember the first time I read it and how it changed the way I looked at punctuation forever.  In fact, it was this book that took away my fear of the written word in the first place.

As I reflect back on my elementary education, I don’t recall ever having a lesson on grammar and proper punctuation usage, so by the time I reached university and was required to write regularly, I had no idea how to use the language to the best of my ability.  I could barely spell (okay, not totally, but I do recall that I often didn’t use specific words because I didn’t know how to spell them – the internet wasn’t what it is today and we still used dictionaries and I was too lazy to look up the words).  So, my essay would be rife with errors and run on sentences that could have benefited from a thorough punctuation attack.  It wasn’t until I read Truss’ book that I even understood how to use a coma properly (sad, I know!). 

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a hilariously funny look at punctuation, but also extremely informative.  It has served me a reference guide for close to a decade now and each time through I gain more confidence with another type of mark.  After the first read, my mind was blown and there was so much clear and useful information that I couldn’t possibly absorb it all at once.  I focused on the coma, which over the years has become a close and personal friend. (Note:  As I’m writing this post, I’m extremely paranoid about the punctuation that I’m using because even though I have spent much time attempting to master it; there is still so much to learn.)  Thinking about the book now, I realize this must have been at least my third time through because my second time, my focus was on the apostrophe; particularly the difference between its and it’s.  (True story:  I’ve recently been editing Empty Boxes for production and I am working from a 2006 draft; I was appalled while editing at the number of times I wrote its when I meant it’s.  It’s embarrassing!)

This reading has introduced the colon and semi-colon into my writing.  You can look back through my work and actually pinpoint when they were written based on my punctuation use.  Even since December, you can see an evolution and it is evident that I was re-reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  I was really experimenting with the semi-colon; still am.  I remember looking back on something I wrote and I had to laugh because every other sentence had a semi-colon in it: I was just so excited that it had entered my life; I wanted to spend as much time with it as possible.

The best thing about the semi-colon that I have discovered is the clarity it provides when writing lists.  A problem that constantly plagued my writing was making lists where I needed to use comas in the title of a list item but also needed to use comas as separators between each of the list entries; this led to list confusion.  As an example:
My favourite books include: Catch-22, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 1984, and The Sun Also Rises.
See where the confusion comes in?  Do I enjoy a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves or two books called Eats and the other Shoots & Leaves?  My previous solution was to just have each item on a new line, but then you end up taking up an entire page!  Enter the semi-colon:
My favourite books include: Catch-22; Eats, Shoots & Leaves; 1984; and The Sun Also Rises.
Clarity!  This isn’t the only joy of the semi-colon, but I am a new user and still exploring all its possibilities.

I had always been okay with the colon but never realized the breadth of use it carried with it.  I find that I don’t use the colon as often as its semi counterpart, but it has definitely begun making a more regular appearance in my work; especially playwriting.  It really helps clarify the rhythm of speech.  My favourite use of the colon is in a new scene that has been added to Empty Boxes (Past Kevin is giving a speech about not understanding women and a short scene with Adrienne and Past Sarah follows, but Past Kevin ends the scene with a zinger):
Past Sarah – Well, kind of – it started out all stressful and on the second day, we got in this big fight in Central Park but then something shifted and everything was wonderful after that.
Adrienne – What shifted?
Past Sarah -  I’m not sure.  It was like suddenly Kevin finally understood me and what makes me happy.  He even suggested we get our picture taken in bunny costumes in the kids’ zoo.
Adrienne – Really?  That does not sound like Kevin!
Past Sarah – I know, right?!  But it was like he saw I was getting stressed and he just completely backed off.  He surprises me sometimes.  Maybe he is more in tune with my needs than I give him credit for…
Past Kevin – Women: no clue!
I feel like not everyone will understand how exciting that little colon is in the short little line, but there is no other mark that I could think of replacing it with that would give me the same intended effect.

Punctuation tells the reader the pace and tone at which the text should be read.  For authors, this is extremely important, but when you are a playwright and you are writing text that is intended to be read out loud, it is essential to be able to provide as much guidance as possible to the actor.  Punctuation is the gift that the writer gives to the actor.  I know that there are many people who don’t see the value of maintaining traditional systems of punctuation, but I feel it is becoming increasingly important.  After years of being enthralled with the telephone, our Western culture is moving back towards a primarily text based system; our primary means of communicating is through text messaging, email and Facebook posts.  Pace and tone is an essential part of ensuring your message is received with your proper intent.  It is so easy for text to be misinterpreted by the reader (especially sarcasm!). 

I recently read in my new book, Practical Grammar (Maxine Ruvinsky), a statement regarding the haphazard way people learn about grammar and punctuation today.  She spoke about how many students are just learning grammar intrinsically; they know if it sounds right or not, but they don’t actually understand why it is right.  They may argue that it is for effect, but Ruvinsky states it perfectly in her quote:
“After all, in order to break rules for artistic or intellectual effect, you have first to understand and command those rules; to break the rules because you don’t know them is nothing more illustrious than simple ignorance.”
I was talking to a friend about how excited I was to start really learning proper grammar and he stated that the endeavour was pointless.  As a writer, I completely disagree: it is essential.  But even as a speaker of the English language, I think it still holds value. 

Anyhoo, Practical Grammar will be a plunder in weeks to comes, so I will leave some of that rant for then.  If you are looking to understand what the deal is with punctuation (writer or no) but don’t want some boring blackboard lesson; please, please, please read Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  It is so funny!  I actually found myself laughing out loud so many times; even on the fourth time through (and I know that won’t be the last time I pull it out for a refresher).  It is a quick and easy read and you come out with such a new perspective on why sometimes a dash is more effective than an ellipsis and how comas can kill. 

Truss’ follow up book Talk to the Hand is also extremely entertaining, but is far less useful for practical application.  You can find Truss’ books, as well as Practical Grammar, at your local bookstores.

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