Author Recovers From Ninth Grade English Class; Suffers Another Lesson
Ms. Grimshaw, my English teacher, beat me in our 9th grade classroom. Metaphorically, of course. I stood defenseless at my desk as she slung words at me, like, “prepositional phrase,” and “dependent clause.” Furthermore, she applied large red “X’s” to the places where I randomly put commas, colons, and semi-colons in my paper. Then she held the blood-stained essay up for the whole class to see.
She beat me because I could create an appositive in my writing, but could not name it. Independent and dependent clauses appeared in my essay, sometimes in the same sentence — but I didn’t know it.Decades later, when I learned to write without fear, I joined a small critique group that helped me with my punctuation. After reading my first piece, they said, in unison: “You need to get an editor.” They could not help me. I looked for familiar scars about their heads
I outsourced my punctuation. Through this process, I learned a few things. Now, when I read a newly published novel, I can detect when the author uses two complete sentences joined by an “and” or an “or,” without the required comma. I know immediately that I’ve discovered an unpolished writer, someone who is not very diligent, and not clever enough to find some anal-compulsive friend to detail her book.
I survived Ms. Grimshaw’s attacks and published a novel in her face. People came up to me at my book signings and complimented me on my punctuation. “Good punctuation,” they said. I flew high, inserting a semi-colon here and a colon there. One day, an elderly lady walked up to my book signing desk. She had a cane, and her coat gave off an odd chemical odor, like magic marker. Red, magic marker.
She took one of my books and opened it at random. She read from it for a minute or two, and then spread the open book out in front of me. She swung her cane in a counterclockwise motion over her shoulder until the tip of the cane came down on page 63, third paragraph.
“Young man, you’ve created an appositive and have not flanked it by commas.”
I said, “I hired an editor to do that kind of detail work. It’s not my fault.”
“It is your fault,” said the lady, slapping her cane on the table, a little too close to my hand. “Do you write songs?”
“Thank goodness. I bet if you hand-wrote the lyrics of a song, you’d hire a temp typist to create the melody.”
“Not sure I understand.”
“Young man, punctuation matters to your story. It constructs the rhythm of your writing. It determines the pauses in your sentences, your paragraphs, your chapters. The reader’s voice rises and falls to the writer’s beat.
“The period gives finality to a thought, a scene, a chapter. It gives certainty to a writer’s voice.
“The comma pauses, sometimes to give an aside to the reader by lowering the writer’s voice. The comma stretches the sentence out, allowing for several clauses to create a pleasant riff. The semicolon is a period stacked upon a comma, telling the reader he can roll through the stop sign. The colon is made up of two periods, a sure stop with an expectation of what is to follow.
“Young writer, these marks are not without sound or meaning. Your writing is not something to shuffle off to some detail man so he can place a shine on its tires and remove the McDonalds’ wrapper from page 237.”
I had gotten better. When she slammed her cane down next to my hand, I did not flinch.
She picked up my book again, and a pen from her purse. She wrote on the inside cover: “When you sit down to write, bring your composition book, your ink pen, and Lapsing Into a Comma, by Bill Walsh, or Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, or The New Well-Tempered Sentence, by Karen Elizabeth Godon.”
And then she leaned toward me, and in a lowered voice she said to me: “Punctuation marks aren’t rules to follow; they’re notes to hit.”
Dane Zeller makes his punctuation mistakes here and at his website, One Monkey Typing. Comments below will be appreciated. Mistakes found in the above writing will be the subject of serious yawning.