Punctuation has become something of an obsession of mine over the past few years. I think this is because I spent the majority of my working life not really worrying about it. (As a computer programmer, the only punctuation I ever had to deal with was the semi-colon.)
When I learned you couldn’t just throw down a comma when you felt like taking a breath; that you don’t just drop in a semi-colon when you’re bored of using full stops; that two exclamations marks is always one too many. . . . Well, I’m afraid to say I became a bit of a punctuation Nazi. I read book after book, studied at various schools of religion and criticized others who had yet to see the light.
There’s nothing as irritating as the suddenly converted.
Anyway, I’m over that now. As many have said, punctuation are road signs to the reader, and when you know what you’re doing then there’s no reason why you drop in the occasional diversion. There are lots of rules, and lots of them conflict, so in the end you just have to settle with what you’re comfortable with.
Here’s my favourite example: the em-dash is used as a pause or sudden interruption.
She was cheap—or so he said—and would make a terrible mother.
Nothing wrong with that, except I’ve never been happy with the way such an interruption looks on the page. Something about it always struck me as rather heavy-handed, so I use the less common, and often frowned-upon, en-dash variation.
She was cheap – or so he said – and would make a terrible mother.
To me, that looks much better even if it’s not strictly correct. On the other hand, the em-dash looks fine if the interruption occurs at the end of a line:
‘What did you just call me, Douglas?’
‘I called you a—’
She slapped him – hard.
So I like to mix and match.
I tend to dip into quite a few punctuation guides when I’m stuck for a particular rule, or looking for some way to give a piece of writing more clarity and/or impact. While I’ve been working on The Quisling Orchid I’ve discovered that my favourite reference comes (once again) from a rather unlikely source.
The Petulant Poetess is a site dedicated to Harry Potter fan-fiction, but it also hosts a very good punctuation guide. The guide itself follows the Chicago Manual of Style pretty much, but it’s very compact and has adapted to publishing on the web (where it can be quite difficult to indent a paragraph, for example).
If you’re stuck for the comma rules, or your not sure if it’s safe to use a semi-colon, then it’s definitely worth a look.