Punctuation – A Personal Religion

In english class, they taught me what a clause was, and the difference between an independent and a dependent clause, and how to use a comma with all grammatical correctness to separate them.

But that’s not how I learned how to use commas. If you took most of my sentences and asked me to explain why a comma belongs here or there, I would have to tell you half the time that,¬†grammatically, I have no frelling idea. It just feels right.

See, I learned to use punctuation, not from english class, but from reading. I read a lot. I learned these things organically, from seeing them used properly, a million times over in hundreds of books over the years. I use commas and such by feel, much like a musician might know how to play from sheet music, but still be able to listen to a song and play it by ear without the music written on paper.

It can be hard to describe sometimes, especially when I tend to be such an analytical person. A comma, to me, doesn’t represent a grammatical technicality, it’s a pause for breath. A semicolon is a longer pause to collect your thoughts while linking two ideas. An em-dash at the end of a piece of dialogue means the speaker was interrupted, and an¬†ellipsis means they trailed off. When writing fiction, grammar isn’t important. You can write run on sentences if the narrator’s voice calls for it – incomplete sentences even.

What matters most is the effect what you write has on the reader. I think the only way to gain that intuitive sense for what effect any particular punctuation and sentence structure is going to have is the organic way – by reading extensively, and watching the masters do it.

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