Ursula K. Le Guin says, resoundingly, “Wrong!”
The second chapter of her book on writing, Steering the Craft, is all about punctuation.
(Check out my post about the first chapter here!)
She writes, “…punctuation tells the reader how to hear your writing.” It is a crucial tool, and not to be overlooked. My experience with tutoring writing students attests to this. The wrong punctuation mark or a missing one obscures the meaning of the text, or gives an entirely wrong impression.
Using quotation marks around the “wrong” word because you believe they provide “emphasis” (when really they indicate the writer doesn’t “agree” with the term in quotes) can create a “confusing” situation. Like this:
But Le Guin takes it further than ensuring successful communication. She quotes Socrates: “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” I won’t go into much detail, but Le Guin makes (and backs up) the claim that “right” or “wrong” usage of language is a political and social issue, determined by whatever group has the power to determine what is “right” and what is “wrong.” One example is that of the (outdated) grammar rule that the singular, gender neutral person is “he.” Which, of course, excludes half the human population. She chooses to “incorrectly” use the pronoun “their” instead.
It’s a perspective that holds the writer responsible for their use of language. We must know what the rules are, and how to use them well.
This isn’t so groundbreaking, but to most people, it seems that punctuation and grammar are viewed as boring, as hindrances rather than tools. Le Guin wants writers to reconsider how important knowing the technicalities of language are.
The writing exercise she offers is to write without punctuation. Here’s what I wrote:
when they first landed we almost started a nuclear exchange thinking what we were all picking up on our radars was a missile we couldnt tell who had fired it though good thing too or else someone would surely have fired in retaliation mistaken retaliation but frankfurt was not a target we thought neither for a missile strike nor for an alien invasion though the latter was really what happened a calmer and more peaceful one than any of our storytellers or conspiracy theorists had foreseen isnt that always the way it goes though when something permanently world altering occurs its never what anyone expects it sneaks up on you the way the aliens snuck up on us so that by the time un forces and german police found their vessel and then the aliens it was already too late
Reflections: It was very difficult for me to find a rhythm as I wrote. Punctuation establishes the rhythm of the prose; as Le Guin says, it shows how the words should be read. But without it, I can barely write at all, let alone read. Even typing it out here, I got confused about which parts of sentences fit together. This really emphasized to me how much I rely on punctuation to organize my thoughts.
Punctuation is a powerful tool, and Le Guin pulls no punches; there’s no easy way out: it’s up to us as writers to get it right–or to choose not to, as long as we know WHY.