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Words to the Wise

Get a Life! Does It Really Matter?

A brief rant on the importance of punctuation

I have two groups of friends: those who work and play with the printed word as I do, and those who use the printed word much as they use their car—to get from here to there. Both groups know my reputation: I care about minutia in writing, those details that make writing flow, that smooth the reader's way, that spare the reader the irritation of interruption and confusion.

Yes, I care about punctuation.

Many writers I have worked with, after I have covered their copy with corrections, tell me with a dismissive wave of the hand, "I know, I just can't figure out commas." Ah, but they can, and they should. After all, they want to see their name in lights, don't they?

There are many resources out there—cheap and easy to use. The best are Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves. (Truss is like me, but she has made millions.)

Resources or not, it comes down to this: as a writer hoping to publish the breakout novel or the self-help guide that will change us all or the poem that will rise to everyone's lips, you have to care. You have to care enough to think about what you are doing and pay attention to the few conventions that pedants like me have formulated to make the world of words a better place.

It's all about practice—and here you will learn just how weird I am. Every time I write, whether I'm editing a historical novel or a press release, whipping off a reply to an email, or composing a message to hubby on a Valentine, I pay attention to the punctuation. And whenever I'm not sure about something, I check. This helps me commit the rules and conventions to memory. When I'm facing 5,000 words to be edited and sent off to a client before suppertime, I can't be wondering whether a comma is correct. I need to know.

Do your friends and future readers a favour: pay attention to punctuation. They'll love you for it.


William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. London: Profile Books Ltd., 2003.

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