Punctuation: Save a Life
The fourth pillar of education is punctuation. For most people punctuation is a confusing mystery. Punctuation errors (as well as spelling and grammar errors) abound in public writing. Granted, language and punctuation is not like mathematics: language is fluid and constantly changing. In fact, as I've done more editing of my own and others' writings, I've had to study punctuation more intently. I'm continually honing my understanding of grammar and punctuation, trying to keep up with new ways of doing things. Sometimes punctuation advice from internet sources and grammar books differ. So it's not a hard and fast, black and white science.
However, like spelling irregularities, that doesn't give us an excuse to throw up our hands and remain willfully ignorant, for punctuation errors are not blissful for those who have to read our writings. Good punctuation flows out of an understanding of grammar, which is why grammar needs to come first or in tandem with punctuation. Once grammar is understood, sentences can be analyzed for proper punctuation. The more complex the sentence, the more necessary it is to understand grammatical structure in order to use the correct punctuation.
You can't understand punctuation without grammar. Punctuation is all about how sentences are put together. Commas and semi-colons and colons are not just put in willy-nilly—or as one website referred to commas—like little tadpoles all over the page. There are principles and sentence structure that guide their usage. There are times when a punctuation mark is up to the author's discretion, but even these must be understood so that the writer knows why and when the punctuation can differ. Then the author/writer can make the choice they prefer for the right reasons. For example, it used to be (and it is still the rule according to The Chicago Manual of Style, the "bible" for writers, editors, and publishers) that items in a list of three or more were always separated with commas, even the next to last one before the and. Nowadays, writers will often leave out the last comma, even when the last two items do not go together as a pair.
Punctuation isn't only about grammatical structure; it is also about literary meaning. Punctuation helps the reader to comprehend what the writer intended to say and to read it the way the writer meant for it to be read. As writers, we can help the reader connect thoughts and ideas through our punctuation, connections that might have been missed without the added punctuation. The ability punctuation has to emphasize or to link ideas in tighter connections or to show important vs. unimportant information necessitates an acknowledgement that the same sentence could be punctuated in different ways depending on the author's intent. In these ways, punctuation adds power to writing.
By using punctuation to portray intent and meaning as well as grammatical structure, we are aiding the reader in how to read what we have written with the proper inflection and phrasing. Punctuation can even help to convey tone of voice. It becomes part of the artistry of writing. Punctuation then is an important skill to be mastered for thorough, unambiguous communication. For a humorous communication flaw, due to omitted periods on a list, check out this YouTube by comedienne Jeanne Robertson:
If you want to read an entertaining, humorous, and enlightening book about punctuation, read the book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss —or should it be Eats Shoots and Leaves? The cover shows a panda bear standing on a bamboo ladder, rubbing out the commas, while another panda is walking off holding a gun. The subtitle is The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. It would make a great Christmas gift for a home-school parent, a high school student, or someone who has to write business letters or church bulletins! You can purchase it here:
For the college student who is having to write multitudes of essays or for a budding author, The Chicago Manual of Style might make a good gift: