Enough dots already! How to write a novel–part 37

Someone asked me recently why I wasn’t on Twitter. I almost said, “because I’m WTF?already on bourbon.” But then I thought that would be a little too snarky, even if it was true. The real reason is more basic. Based on the admittedly limited number of tweets I’ve seen, it’s obvious no one using that medium bothers with grammar, or spelling, or punctuation. Reading tweets is like attending a convention of e e cummings wannabes.

The thing to remember about the late Mr. Cummings (1894-1962), is that he learned the rules, and used them for years, before he opted to ignore them. He wrote reams and reams of stuff (mostly poetry, but also plays and novels) arranged and punctuated in accordance with the syntax of traditional English. He wasn’t screwing around with the language; that’s a more recent phenomenon.

Twitter, along with its grammatically evil counterpart–the dreaded txt msg–have taken our language into a bad place, one devoid of anything save expediency. And one of the worst of its sins is the substitution of dots for virtually any punctuation mark. I’m not even talking about ellipsis, the three dots which indicate either missing words or a bit of dialog which trails off. I’m talking about a random sprinkling of dots–two, five, forty-one–however many the twit (twiterer?) or text jockey chooses to use.

  • dude…… you goin r notviagra semi colon
  • beer nite.. be ther bro
  • car dead can u gimme ride

Do I fear for the future? Indeed. [sigh]

I used to be content ranting about the misuse of semicolons. The poor things have been wedged into more manuscripts than clowns into cars at the circus. And with about as much usefulness. Listen up: Semi-colons are not commas on steroids; they aren’t typographically aroused, and they certainly don’t provide a magical answer to any and all grammatical conundrums. What they do is connect two sets of words which could otherwise stand alone quite nicely as complete sentences.

Why do that? Well, mostly to show a cause and effect relationship. F’rinstance: “Bob’s stomach grumbled; he went to find food.” There are only two other ways to do this: break ’em into separate sentences, or connect them with a comma and a coordinating conjunction, like and, or, but, so, etc. (“Bob’s stomach grumbled, and he went to find food.”)

TroglodyteOne can also use the noble semi-colon to separate complete clauses in a list: “Wanda had high cheekbones; she had the legs of a dancer; she had the manners of a hyena in heat.” (Actually, I know Wanda, and she’s really a sweet gal. A little crazy at times, but hey, aren’t we all?)

An editor of one of the premier speculative fiction magazines once told me she loved to see the proper use of a semi-colon in the opening of a story because it demonstrated the writer’s knowledge of that much grammar at least. If the same, crummy little punctuation mark was misused, it told her to be wary of the writer’s work. Would you trust a builder who didn’t know how to use his tools?

The point is, like so many elements of the craft, you should learn the rules before breaking them so that when you do break ’em, you’ll be doing it for a good reason and not because you’re some kind of knuckle-dragging  troglodyte.

Please, don’t let anyone think you’re a troglodyte. Even Wanda.

–Josh

 

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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11 Responses to Enough dots already! How to write a novel–part 37

  1. I recognised early on that Twitter was the death of our beautiful English language, like, you know?

  2. Oops, I may have misspelled recognized; although it would be correct in England.

  3. joshlangston says:

    You’re forgiven, Eddie. By the way, in your second comment the semi-colon should be a comma. (“Although” is a coordinating conjunction. [smile]) However, you get bonus points for effort!

  4. Josh , Did I ever tell you the story about when I was in the Army for three years and would write a letter home to my mother? Eventually she would write back and my letter would be enclosed with hers. In my letter, she would have marked every mistake in red. Thanks for continuing the tradition.

  5. joshlangston says:

    Ouch! That’s a tough way to learn. You *did* learn though, right?

  6. Jeffro L says:

    I can’t stand lazy texters. The response “K” especially gets me fired up. I guess that makes me “old school”.

  7. nativeson49 says:

    I review all electronic correspondence for accuracy before sending. However, does being a reformed troglodyte count when it comes to the use of semi-colons?

  8. joshlangston says:

    I suppose that all depends on what you want it counted *toward.* But, assuming you’re not kidding about being a reformed troglodyte, you’re part of a very small community. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Writing, especially cursive, and reading will be obsolete in humanity’s future. The majority of books will slowly disappear. Sounds terrible I know but does anybody ride a horse and buggy anymore?

  10. joshlangston says:

    I’m pretty sure the horse and buggy were eclipsed by something better. I haven’t seen anything yet that might eclipse written communication. And, if I’m lucky, I won’t see anything that’ll do the job in my lifetime.

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