Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 08/11/2023

Episode 32: Letters to a Beginner III, On Punctuation

by Leslie W. Quirk. These letters originally published in 1903-1904 issues of "The Editor."

Well, Harry, I’ve read your story, I’ve smiled at it, I’ve scowled at it, I’ve almost thought it was good. Yet there is something that keeps me from praising it, something that reminds me of a little incident in my own life.

“Pardon me, Mr. Vanders,” once said a great editor to me, “but there is something lacking in this story of yours.”

“Something lacking?” I repeated, wondering whether it were dramatic power, heart interest, or some other intangible quality.

“Yes, sir,” said the great editor, “it’s punctuation.”

It was a hard blow, Harry, as you can imagine, and I tell you this little incident only to prepare you for the same criticism. The last story you sent me is incorrectly punctuated.

I believe you know better, my boy, and that it is only a matter of carelessness. Sooner or later there comes to every writer a time when he values matter so much above manner that the rules of punctuation he learned in the old grammar are forgotten, and commas slip in where periods should be, and semicolons grow meaningless. He forgets that punctuation can be made to talk just as plainly as words.

I think this is your case, Harry, and I am minded to give you a fatherly little talk on punctuation; not a cut-and-dried, governed-by-rules lecture, but such friendly advice as I should give my stenographer were she to spell collar c-o-l-a-r.

Let’s take up the comma first. I suppose there are more ways of misusing and ill-treating the comma, and more ways of using it correctly, than there are writers. Commas, you understand, are not first aids for the elocutionist, but guideposts for the reader. They do not indicate pauses, but grammatical constructions. Because you can see how your sentences are constructed, is no reason for supposing other people can. You can offer a clear and concise explanation, however, by dropping in commas at the proper places. Take the sentence I have just used : “Because you can see how your sentences are constructed, is no reason,” etc. Now, were it not for the comma, the reader might be in doubt as to whether my predicate began with the verb “are” or “is.” The comma settles the matter definitely.

Roughly speaking, commas are used to separate clauses, to indicate parenthesis, and to single words out where several are used in the same construction. With this definition in mind, I will pick out sentences from your story and punctuate them for you.

I have just quoted an example of the use of the comma in separating a cumbersome sentence into its subject and predicate. Now let me take up one with two parts in it. You say, “I told her that I loved her with all my heart and that I should love her forever.” You need a comma after “heart”. You must have one. You have linked the two ideas together by the use of “and,” and now you must show that they do not bear the same relation to each other that “two” and “three” do in the sentence, “Two and three make five.” Hence, you must use a comma, which also indicates that in the second clause the words, “and I also told her,” etc., are understood. All clauses should be separated by commas, unless they are very closely united or very short. This means that when you join two ideas by the use of “and” or “but,” that when you add a clinging expression to a clause already making complete sense, that when you invert the natural order to make a periodic sentence, you generally have need of commas.

The parenthetical use of commas is very simple, and may be illustrated by punctuating some of your ideas. “The girl, too, was frightened.” “It was a miracle, as it were, that he did not speak. “As a business man, perhaps, he was not the equal of Lervor.” One of your worst faults, Harry, is in not setting off names by commas. You should punctuate your sentences in this manner. “I know, Paul, that I should do it.” "Here, boy, get my hat.” “I will do it, madam, at the very first opportunity.”

Now, in singling out words where several are used in the same construction, to my mind the comma denotes two things. It indicates the absence of the word “and,” and it makes the various words of equal value; puts them in the same class. “She was pretty, clever and good,” you say. Of course, you have the idea of climax always in mind, and have used the strongest word last, but you mean that she is pretty, that she is clever, and that she is good. Some writers would use a comma after “clever.” Some claim that “and” takes its place. It is really a matter of little moment, not worth arguing about. In connection with this idea of separating words by commas, I will quote another sentence of yours, to how that it works equally well in pairs of words. You say, “Love and poverty, respect and riches—which should it be?” You readily see the examples are parallel.

It may interest you to observe that in “Harper’s” expressions like “She said, wistfully” are always to be found with the comma separating the verb and the adverb. A great many of the other magazines do not approve of this usage.

Semicolons are used in four ways by the best writers; they are not used at all by you. The above sentence is an example of one of the ways. The two ideas are short complete sentences. You say, “She was a wonderful girl to him always gracious to others a woman to be loved.” I puzzled over your meaning a long time before I solved the problem. I believe what you meant was this : “She was a wonderful girl to him; always gracious and kind to others; a woman to be loved.” At first I gathered the idea that to him she was gracious and kind, but that for some reason she could be loved only by others. You see the importance of punctuation. Had your sentence read, “She was a wonderful girl; to him, always gracious and kind; to others, a woman to be loved,” it would have illustrated the use of the semicolon admirably, when it is employed in the separation of clauses which are subdivided by commas, and which might not otherwise be readily understood. No offense, Harry!

I’ll just punctuate another of your sentences, and allow you to study it. “He knew that she was good to her father, to her mother, to everybody about the house; that she was patient with the old grandfather and the cronies who visited him; that, in short, she was an ideal girl.”

You should also use the semicolon before the abbreviations, i. e.,e. g., viz., or the full words. Say, “I mean that it is correct; i. e., that it should read as it does.”

I haven’t much to say about the use of colons. I see you use them after such words as “thus,” “as follows,” etc., and that you use them after “Dear Sir." This is correct. A colon may also be used to indicate a pause half way between a semicolon and a period. You say, “Be pure, in purity lies all a woman’s charm.” I changed your comma to a semicolon, but a colon would also be correct in this case. A colon may also be used to separate clauses subdivided by semicolons. You had better avoid such constructions, however.

Now we come to the dash. Oh, Harry! I counted the dashes in your story, and there were 314! You use the dash for a period, a colon, a semicolon, a comma, and where there should be no punctuation at all. For all practical purposes, the dash has but two uses: for parentheses, and for a sudden change in the construction of a sentence.

In your pretty little love story, you say, “Jerry put all the passion of his heart and it was a big one into the wooing.” Now, if you had set off “and it was a big one” with dashes, you would have used them correctly. Alas! you neglected one of your best opportunities.

As I run over your story again I find a second chance, like the first, neglected. Your wooer says, “Wealth, reputation, ability, what are these beside love?” Now, why on earth did you not slip in a dash after “ability?” You see the change in the construction of the sentence. Perhaps you appreciate the need, and falter in reply, “I meant to do it, but I—I—And there is the place for more dashes.

I am afraid, Harry, that you will find this letter a bit dull. I went into the subject more earnestly than I intended, but it is a matter that will bear much studying. I may as well tell you frankly, my boy, that until you learn to punctuate correctly you can never hope to write acceptably. Study the moral.

With faith in your ability still strong, I am,

Yours very sincerely,

John A. Vanders.