Celebrating National Punctuation Day by listening to punctuation

Listening to what you’ve written can be immensely helpful in revising and editing your work. “Read it out loud” is a time-tested technique for self-editing.  As Forbes magazine proclaimed, “To write like a human, read your work out loud.” 

Listening to your own writing can help with all stages of the writing process:

  • analysis (recognizing false contrasts, for example)
  • research (realizing that a statement really needs support)
  • organization (noticing that sequential paragraphs or sentences are jumping around between topics)
  • sentence length (running out of air before finishing a sentence)
  • grammar (frowning while reading because it’s now apparent that the subject and verb don’t actually agree)
  • word choice (hearing words that just sound wrong, and maybe brainstorming good alternatives out loud)

But listening can be a bit of a faux ami when it comes to punctuation. Particularly, please do not subscribe to the rule that you insert a comma wherever you pause in speech. As the University of North Carolina Writing Center points out in a comprehensive handout on commas, it’s a myth that you should insert a comma wherever you pause. Different people pause in different places.

The most common error along these lines is, I think, the desire to put a comma after but: “But, the court ultimately reversed and remanded.” I once watched someone read a sentence like this and respond as follows: “That comma makes me physically ill.”

If you are listening to your own work and really, really want to mimic the rhythm of speech by inserting a strong pause . . . consider the ellipses, as Roy Peter Clark recommends in The Glamour of Grammar.  But he also points out that the ellipses to signal a pause is more a tool of narrative writing and not so commonly spotted in the world of formal reports. He didn’t specifically mention legal writing, but he might as well have. The ellipses could perhaps work well in legal blogs and other friendly, outward-facing writing–as well as sarcastic writing like this response to a cease-and-desist.

When lawyers want to slow down the way the writing sounds but maintain a very formal tone, there’s always the old faithful, very basic punctuation mark that does a lot of work but gets under-appreciated for its rhetorical effect. Yes. The period.

One thought on “Celebrating National Punctuation Day by listening to punctuation

  1. As we tirelessly repeated when I was teaching individual study for students working on their dissertations: Don’t be afraid of the period.

    I’m also fond of the subordination offered by parentheses (which are familiar to most people) and the coordiation offered by dashes—which must not be confused with their near-look-alike, the hyphen.

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