Way back at the beginning of this series (a full month ago, my bad), I said that there are rules governing comma, semi-colon, and colon usage—but that you also have choice in the matter, depending on each situation and what you hope to achieve. Today we’re going to look at what this means and focus on reasons why you might choose to break the rules surrounding these three punctuation marks.
I don’t mean to confuse you. But LOOK. Learning that the rules aren’t as set in stone as the prescriptivists would have you believe, breaking the rules purposefully to achieve a particular effect—that’s the entire fun of grammar.
So let’s have some fun.
There are basically two questions to ask when you’re considering using one of these punctuation marks in a way that isn’t ~technically correct~:
- Would punctuation add clarity?
- What effect does the punctuation have on the sentence?
Keeping in mind, of course, that the sentence’s clarity is probably also improvable through, you know, rewriting the sentence a different way such that you don’t have to break The Rules™ to clarify your meaning or make it more readable.
But where’s the fun in that?
Just kidding. There’s fun to be had there, too. (Sentence structure, amiright?) But rewriting the sentence might not be what you want, especially if it changes the flow or effect of the sentence or creates a domino effect, where once you change that sentence you have to change the next, and the next, and the next, and the—
So you might want to use your punctuation creatively rather than rewriting the sentence. Obviously, there aren’t any set ways to do this. Instead of giving you a list of ways to break the rules, I’m going to give you some examples where I did so and explain why I made that choice, and then you can judge my terrible use of punctuation.
(Jk again, but only sort of. I know some people are going to look at these and go, “Well I never!!!” And that’s fine too.)
“All right,” Edna said, and held out her hand.
When I pair a dialogue tag with an action beat, I often place a comma after the tag, even though I often don’t include a pronoun in the action beat. To be “correct,” this should really be “Edna said, and she held out her hand.” But I like the flow of this construction and use it relatively often.
She had the ring, her destiny, a Fateful Object to retrieve.
Since this is a list, there should technically be an “and” before our last item (a Fateful Object), but I again like the flow without the extra word.
She was leaving Golden Years. Heading off on a trip, well, all right, a quest, if you wanted to be technical about it, a journey, an adventure the likes of which she’d only ever imagined.
Holy mother of commas, Batman! Sometimes I like to use a multitude of commas rather than a semi-colon, em dash, or parentheticals (em dashes or parentheticals would work particularly well here). Semi-colons, em dashes, and parentheticals slow the sentence down more and can draw more attention to a certain part of it. Read this version for comparison:
She was leaving Golden Years. Heading off on a trip—well, all right, a quest, if you wanted to be technical about it—a journey, an adventure the likes of which she’d only ever imagined.
How does this version differ from the original? Edna has just found out she’s the Chosen One. She’s excited; her mind is racing. I love—I love—em dashes, but in this passage I chose to use commas exclusively because they give me more a feeling of a mind racing, tumbling over itself in its excitement.
Both versions are valid! Both versions would probably give the average editor palpitations! But I went with the all-comma version because, to my mind, it suited the context better.
“Edna,” Benjamin said, wiping his mouth, “I studied theoretical magic. It’s not even like magic-magic, my concentration was magical anthropology, which is a totally different beast. I’ve literally never done a spell in my life, which means it would probably blow up in my face if I tried one now, not to mention the fact that divining magic is tricky and sort of unethical and really nosy and you have to have proper licensure if you want to practice serious divining magic, so if your goal was to have me burn down the hotel and get arrested for practicing divination without a license—”
A final example from some dialogue, because dialogue is (in my opinion) where you can most get away with breaking the rules. Why? Because people don’t typically speak in perfectly approved prescriptivist fashion! Certain characters might, but most characters will probably break prescriptive rules left and right when they speak—and that’s before you even consider dialects, many of which are considered “wrong” by champions of “standard” dialects.
(The claim that many dialects, particularly those used by or predominantly by Black and brown communities, are “incorrect” is hella racist and also classist, but that’s another blog post for another time.)
Anyway, to get back to this particular example: Benjamin’s longer speeches tend to be filled with commas and long-ass sentences as he rambles on either excitedly or anxiously about something to do with magic or magic use. As with the passage where Edna’s mind is racing, I feel that overuse of commas—especially paired with sections where there could be commas but aren’t—really gets across the idea that this is all said quickly, sort of word-vomited. Other punctuation might be equally or more correct. But other punctuation might also slow the dialogue down more than I want or put more emphasis on something I don’t mean to particularly emphasize.
After weeks spent talking about The Rules™, this post might have confused you. (Sorry.) That’s not my intention. I just want to emphasize that, although punctuation marks have specific functions, there are many ways in which they can perform these functions. Grammar isn’t as set in stone as it seems! Punctuation is all about clarity of communication—so basically, if your punctuation clarifies your meaning or tone, it’s probably okay. Even if it’s not technically correct.
Read the whole series on commas, semi-colons, and colons!
4 thoughts on “Commas, Semi-Colons, & Colons, Oh My: Part 4 – Breaking the Rules”