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The Art of Punctuation / A Dash of Style

This book was published in the US as A Dash of Style but came out later in Canada and the UK under the alternative title The Art of Punctuation.

The cover of The Art of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman The cover of A Dash of Style by Noah Lukeman

This, as the author Noah Lukeman is at pains to point out, and as is immediately obvious when you start reading, is not a grammar book. Noah Lukeman wants to get across how to use punctuation effectively as an aid to better writing, rather than explain the functions of stops; indeed he omits some of them, such as the apostrophe, and includes others not usually regarded as punctuation: paragraph and section marks.

He aims to show his readers how to write effectively and creatively — not only to communicate ideas, but also get across rhythm, stress and pace, mood and texture, and the voices of characters — and how punctuation can help the writer. So the emphasis throughout is not on the rules of punctuation but the effect that they have on the reader’s experience. For example:

When discussing the dash, most grammarians find it significant only inasmuch as it should not be confused with a hyphen; often it is relegated to a sign of carelessness. What a shame that is. The dash is a beautiful, striking mark of punctuation, which can enhance creativity and which is crucial for capturing certain forms of dialogue.

As an example of his approach, his first chapter is on full stops (periods in the US). His comments are not about how to use them — that’s easy enough to grasp — but how creatively varying the lengths of sentences will achieve a rhythm and keep the reader’s interest alive and focused. On commas, he points out that — though they’re essential — it’s all too easy to both underuse and overuse them. He goes into the subtleties of the semicolon and the colon, and when to use parentheses and when to prefer dashes instead. He states ideas I’ve not seen expressed elsewhere: that stops and content are interconnected to the extent that some content is not possible with certain punctuation and vice versa; that stops with different strengths in the same piece of prose influence each other and change their effect on the reader; that sometimes marks will complement others, while at other times they will conflict (his last chapter, The Symphony of Punctuation, goes into this in some detail).

Every chapter ends with exercises directed at readers who are also active writers. He suggests trying out variations in stops to gauge their effect on the tone, analysing the relative usage of various stops in a piece, and rewriting passages to use ideas discussed in the chapter. Preceding each set of exercises is a section that sets out what writers’ use of a punctuation mark reveals about them. He says, for instance:

As the semicolon is an advanced tool, writers who overuse it are likely to be somewhat advanced, people who take chances with language and strive to make it the best it can be. This bodes well. However, since the semicolon is also a fairly for-mal, classy tool, writers who overuse it are also likely to lean towards pretentiousness. They are more likely to write in flowery, ornate prose, and the writing is likely to be overly intricate. Simplification is needed.

Every part of Mr Lukeman’s argument is illustrated with lavish quotations from good authors and he is easy to read. Anyone who wants to improve their authorial voice will find value in it.

[Noah Lukeman, The Art of Punctuation; ISBN-13 978-0-19-921078-7, ISBN-10 0-19-921078-0; paperback, pp192; Oxford University Press, UK; list price £7.99. Published in the US by WW Norton as A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation; in paperback: ISBN-13: 978-0-393-06087-4, ISBN-10: 0-393-32980-1; publisher’s price $13.95.]

Page created 2 Jun. 2007

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