Helpful Tips for your MFA Program
A Crash Course in Punctuation
It was John's first day on the job, to place road signs. That should be easy enough. Look at the map, find its position, and set it in.
The first surprise was that his supervisor, Paul, would accompany him. So much for thinking he could take his time.
Both of them crawled into the utility-truck cab, his supervisor driving.
"You follow the map and tell me where to stop."
"Okay," John said.
The map was a maze of dots, some red, some yellow, some white, others green. Still, he'd seen road signs for as long as he could remember, not that he always paid attention to them, but that was another story.
The first one was a stop-sign for the corner of Elm and Birch. John opened the door and walked around to the truck bed. The red octagonal signs were stacked nearest to the back end and he pulled one out.
"Wait a minute," he hollered. "This one has a dot in the middle of it. All of them do. What's going on?"
"They're periods, for the ends of blocks, sentences, complete thoughts, stanzas. Guideposts for the readers to know it's a complete thought."
John finished installing the sign, crawled back in, and Paul drove onward.
"What's next?" Paul asked.
"A speed limit sign."
They stopped midway down a block, and John stepped out to find the sign. This time, he wouldn't be surprised by what he found. The stack of familiar white signs lay along the left side of the truck bed.
"A comma," John said. "But why here?"
"Why do you think?"
"To slow down? There's a period coming up?"
"Close. How about to guide the driver to slow down enough to understand the words, enough of a pause to separate lists of items, thoughts, phrases?"
"Got it," he said. He completed the sign and returned to the cab to pick up the map. This would be a grammar lesson. Okay, whatever.
Paul continued driving toward downtown, and John studied the map.
"Oh," he said, "Yield sign coming up at the intersection."
Paul pulled over and turned the emergency stop lights on, and John stepped out again. This was going to be a long day. He opened up the back door to look for the yellow sign. This pile was smaller than the others, and he pulled one out, a single dash-sign. Underneath it was one with an ellipsis.
"Boss, this makes no sense at all," he said.
"How many yield signs did we bring?"
"A couple. Not many."
"Why do you think that?"
"They're to slow readers down, but not completely. To have them pause to pay attention."
"Right. The dash-sign indicates a separate but important idea. And the ellipses. Well, those have two meanings: to indicate part of a quotation isn't quoted, and to show that a character has lost his train of thought or paused in midstream."
"My kids text them all the time. So, what do those mean?"
"Nothing," Paul said. "If you don't know what they mean, how can they possibly mean anything?"
John installed the dash-sign, and they were on their way, Paul barreling along at 35 mph, and then he screeched to a stop at the stop sign.
John glanced at the map. He'd been sightseeing, reading along and enjoying all the metaphors in the descriptions, forgetting what he was doing. Again. "Sorry," he said. "We need two signs back a ways on this block." The one, the comma, would be easy to find, but the other one was a question mark. He set the speed limit sign in the ground, and then walked back to the truck for a brown recreation sign.
"I give up," he exclaimed. "So, I use a question mark?"
"What is it pointing out?"
"A hiking trail up ahead."
"Got it. The reader will ponder whether or not to follow it. So, when do we use the exclamation point?"
"Rarely. I've heard some people say one or two for a novel, which works out to about one every twenty miles. That's about right," Paul said.
"But what if the characters are particularly excitable?"
"That's telling, don't you think?"
John set the last sign. It had taken all day, but it had been a successful day all in all, even though he'd messed up a few times.
This doesn't cover everything to know about punctuation, but perhaps it'll provide a few guiding posts for driving the writing roads.