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I have just read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which in my opinion is a beautiful piece of literature. It was a particular pleasure to find amongst the abundant meaningful reflections in this novel several tirades on grammar. Here is the strongest example:

Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misuse of language, one must first and foremost have sworn one’s total allegiance.

The novel’s two protagonists are pedantic, so naturally I find them delightful. The passage above was prompted by the errant comma in this sentence: ‘Would you be so kind as, to sign for the packages’.

In the part of the novel titled ‘On Grammar’, a 12-year-old talks back when her teacher tells the class that the point of grammar ‘is to make us speak and write well.’ The girl gets detention when she disagrees with this oversimplification, arguing that ‘grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means: it provides access to the structure and beauty of language.’ The novel was originally written in French, which raises the question whether similarly impassioned reactions are to be found in English-language literature.

These two scenes, I believe, are founded on the idea that you have to know the rules of grammar before you can bend or break the rules in a way that contributes to—instead of detracting from—the meaning you are trying to bring across. There is a difference between grammar and style, and writers should always start with grammar.

Embracing the rules of grammar will help to make your work as professional as possible. Most importantly, traditional grammatical conventions are tried-and-tested tools to make your writing readable and, whether your writing is intended for publication or is to be read by a competition judge, the reader will be more sympathetic to your work if it is easy to read.

Australia’s definitive guide to the rules of English grammar is the Style Manual (John Wiley, currently in its sixth edition). First published in 1966 by the Commonwealth Government Printing Office, the Style Manual sets the standard for publishers, editors and writers and is an invaluable editing tool. It costs $45.00 and is reissued and updated as language conventions change and new ‘issues’ arise.

For those who aren’t interested in studying the Style Manual, your humble Pedant is here to assist. Let’s start with a summary of general tips for editing sentence punctuation.

SPACES

The most basic part of a sentence is probably the space. In desktop publishing only single spaces are used, though I know a journalist who uses double spaces because he believes it adds to readability (we agreed to disagree). The convention of double spacing after colons, semicolons and at the end of a sentence is a hangover from the days of typewriters. I am too lazy to bother hitting the space bar more than once, and whenever I edit a document replete with double spacing, I perform a simple ‘find and replace’ to tidy up the distracting gaps in the text by replacing all double spaces with single spaces.

COMMAS, SEMICOLONS, COLONS

The Style Manual offers a very useful grading of these punctuation markings, noting that the comma ‘marks the smallest break in the continuity of a sentence’, the semicolon marks a break ‘stronger than that provided by a comma but weaker than that created by a full stop’, and the colon ‘is a marker of relationship and sequence’.

You should generally use a comma where, when reading aloud, you need to take a breath or a break for the sake of clarity, or two commas where you need to mark off a clause. Using commas to mark off incidental information (also known as ‘non-defining clauses’) helps to avoid ambiguity.

Semicolons are used where you want to link two clauses that could be treated as separate sentences but are closely linked in meaning. Another use for the semicolon is in internally punctuated run-on lists: ‘If one or more items in a series or list within a sentence contain internal commas, use a semicolon to separate the items’.

The Style Manual states that a colon ‘is used to introduce a word, phrase or clause that amplifies, summarises or contrasts with what precedes it.’ You should use a colon where you want to present additional information after a clause or to introduce things like lists, examples, indented material or dialogue in a script.

 

The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant: Sentence Punctuation (Part One)’ in The Australian Writer issue 372 (June–August 2011).

Image: Illustration from John William Orr, The National Second Reader (1869)

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