Grammar tips (2): Speaking with a point


My first grammar post was a general argument that punctuation is a democratic tool meant to serve us in our communication: not restrictive, but a doorway to clearer, more precise expression.

For some authors I’ve worked with, the grammar-grate seems to apply particularly to written dialogue. An author said to me, thoughtfully, ‘People don’t speak in semi-colons.’

Well, but they don’t speak in capital letters or full stops either. Human beings learned to speak long before they could write, in terms of history, and in each individual life, in all cultures, a child speaks before reading. So punctuation is a supplementary invention, and that makes me ask myself what it was for. When something is invented, and sometimes lost and then reinvented (like the proverbial wheel, or fiat currency), it must surely mean there is a need for it. So what is that need?

When we speak, we don’t spout forth a string of words one after another without inflection. Face to face with our interlocutors, we have our words, but we also have pauses, and rising or falling tones, and smiles, and eyebrows to raise and noses to wrinkle. And we have hand gestures, body language, shudders and chin-tilts. When reading aloud or acting in a radio play, voice and tone, speed of delivery and modulation have to be intensified or controlled consciously, to compensate for the lack of visual clues. Transfer those words on to a page, therefore – removing the aural clues as well as the visual – and something else has to do that job of conveying pace and structure, meaning and delivery. And that's all punctuation is: a representation on the page of how the language is being put together.

Suppose someone says two sentences:

The children were really playing up this morning. I think I’ll go shopping.

These statements could well be entirely unrelated. The shopping idea might be triggered by looking in a cupboard and finding no coffee, or plucking disconsolately at the frayed hem of an old dress. If that's the case, spoken aloud, there will be a downward inflection on the ‘ing’ of morning, a longish pause after it, and the speaker may well look around the room or drink a sip of tea between the two (because no coffee), or rework her facial expression from exasperated to cheerful as the new idea strikes her (‘Hey, I think I'll go shopping...’).

Pop in a semi-colon, however –

The children were really playing up this morning; I think I’ll go shopping.

– and the two statements acquire a closer relationship, one of consequence. The speaker is going shopping because of her awful morning, to make herself feel better. Spoken aloud, the word ‘morning’ will be less downwardly inflected and the sound of it held for a fraction longer to indicate that more is coming, that the thought is not finished – it’s what we do in speech to stop people interrupting us – and the pause will be shorter. The facial expression might remain the same throughout, perhaps defensive and self-justifying (if the words are spoken to someone who disapproves of shopping), perhaps ironic (if shared confidentially with a friend who loves shopping too). This single piece of punctuation, a simple mark on the page, conveys all that difference in tone and meaning.

So, in a novel, the punctuation is simply supplying an alternative set of clues to make up for the absence of the visual and aural ones that we have in real life. It makes sure that the reader hears the spoken words exactly as the author hears them. It transmits the language from one mind to another mind as accurately as possible. What’s so bad about that?

People do speak with semi-colons. They just don’t know they’re doing it.

#dialogue #punctuation #grammartips

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