Practical Punctuation: Commas and Full Stops

use of full stops instead of commasI’m not sure what is being taught at school these days when it comes to punctuation, but it continually amazes me how few people (younger, usually) don’t seem to know where to put a full stop.

I realize that a lot of this problem comes from not being able to parse a sentence. I can already hear some of you saying, “Parse? What’s that?” It’s the mind-numbing yet vital skill us oldies were taught at school – what the different parts of a sentence are and how they work together. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, but also prepositions and conjunctions, and verb tenses.

We would be given a sentence and made to label every word with its correct name, which can be tricky when a word could be either an adverb or a preposition! But when you understand how it all works, it becomes a natural part of your writing. You no longer have to stop and think about what word is correct – you just know! You also don’t need to identify exactly what verb tense you are using (past imperfect, for example) but you will instinctively know when you’ve used the wrong one.

The big problem for people who didn’t get that rigour at school is that it’s quite hard to learn later on – but not impossible. The course I teach in provides a year-long subject (Editing 1) in which all of this is covered, in some depth. Yes, mind-numbing for some but vital if you really want to write well.

I often see mature age students grow incredibly in their fiction writing during the year because they are studying Editing and what they learn naturally increases their confidence and flow. So – what is the problem with commas and full stops?

What results is run-on sentences, first of all. Writers using a comma when a full stop is necessary end up with sentences that ramble and often don’t make sense. Yes, you do see this in published work, but it’s rarely for an effect. I think often the writer doesn’t understand the effect of constant run-on sentences on the reader, which is basically either boredom or confusion. Constant run-on sentences create a droning sensation, whereas sentences that vary in length provide life in the writing and keep the reader alert.

I think Annie Proulx is a master of punctuation. Take this example from That Old Ace in the Hole (it’s the opening sentence):

In late March Bob Dollar, a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes, drove east along Texas State Highway 15 in the panhandle, down from Denver the day before, over the Raton Pass and through the dead volcano country of northeast New Mexico to the Oklahoma pistol barrel, then a wrong turn north and wasted hours before he regained the way.

Proulx uses a lot of longer sentences, but the punctuation is always precise and always acts as clear signposts for the reader (which is what it’s supposed to do). Now contrast it with a small excerpt from Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel, A Wanted Man:

They gave themselves three minutes to prepare. Reacher didn’t need them. He hadn’t unpacked. His toothbrush was still in his pocket. He was good to go. Delfuenso spent her time writing a note for Lucy. Sorenson spent her time getting out of her pant suit and into the free stuff from the piles on her bed.

Child uses a lot of short sentences, but he uses them most often when writing about his main character, showing us (via full stops!) that Reacher is a no-nonsense, deliberate man. Both writers vary their sentence lengths because they understand what that does to rhythm and pacing.

If you aren’t sure what a run-on sentence is, here’s an example I made up:

John took his black leather jacket out of the closet and slung it over his shoulder like he was ready to leave, it wasn’t time to meet Mary yet but he didn’t want to be late.

Where I put a comma, there should be a full stop. Both of these are full sentences on their own. (You might also hear people call this a “comma splice”.)  There are times when you could use a semi-colon instead of a comma, but some writers do tend to over-use them. I’ll save semi-colons and colons for another time. If you any questions, please ask in the comments!

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