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Static: Incorrect Punctuation

In the previous post about static, we discussed the importance of logical organization to producing clear, static-free writing. Today we delve into a subject that might revive for you long-forgotten nightmares from the by-gone days of junior high English class: the perils of punctuation. As frightening as it might be, we must each grapple with it and win if we truly want our writing to be static free.

Perhaps you’ve read this example of poor comma usage. A little boy who, attending a concert with his grandparents, has been condemned to silence during the performance. Getting hungry, he tries to slip a note to his grandmother, but his grandfather intercepts it and, instead of passing it over to his wife, he reads it: “Isn’t it about time to eat Grandma?”

Horrified, the grandfather abruptly jerks the startled youngster from his seat by his arm and sails him to the nearest exit. In the lobby, he lectures him in no uncertain terms. “In this family, we do not practice cannibalism!”

Had the youngster inserted a comma at just the right place in his query, he might have been enjoying lasagna at Louie’s Lunch Counter instead of listening to a lecture while licking his wounds. There’s a world of difference between “Isn’t it about time to eat Grandma?” and “Isn’t it about time to eat, Grandma?”

A similar scenario is seen in the title of Lynne Truss’s best-selling little work Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which prominently features a pistol-wielding panda. And that brings up the whole controversy over the Oxford comma, but we won’t get into that. I’ll just say that I’m solidly for it because it prevents a lot of misunderstandings and “static.”

Other punctuation problems that increase static in one’s writing include missing or misused quotation marks (does the terminal punctuation go inside or outside them?); colons and semicolons, which no one ever seems to understand; and apostrophes, which are always complicated when you try to combine them with plurals, plural possessives, and surnames that end in -es.

Then we have those confusing dashes and hyphens. And what is the difference between an em dash and an en dash?

Because blog posts are expected to be merely a few hundred words rather than tens of thousands of them, there’s no room here to address all those conundra (is that really the plural form of conundrum?). Let me just say that if you struggle knowing when to use (or not use) a comma, a colon, a semicolon, a hyphen, an em dash, or an en dash, you need to consider investing in a refresher course in punctuation. It could only help your writing. Short of that, I’d recommend a few good resources to help you with these and other punctuation problems, puzzles, and predicaments.

For starters, you can’t do better than these:

  1. Chicago Manual of Style,

  2. Merriam-Webster’s Manual for Writers and Editors, and

  3. The Elements of Style (Strunk and White).

Two resources meant specifically for those writing for Christian publications, I recommend

  1. The Little Style Guide to Great Christian Writing and Publishing (Leonard G. Goss and Carolyn S. Goss) and

  2. A Christian Writer’s Manual of Style (Bob Hudson and Shelley Townsend).

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