When I started blogging on ChicagoNow five years ago, the managing editor offered me feedback: I use too much punctuation.
Editor friends laughed at the comment, thinking he meant I should punctuate less often. What he meant, however, was that I use too many different punctuation marks.
His comment amused me, too, until I thought back to my newspaper reporting days a quarter century earlier. Had my younger self ever used a dash or a semicolon? As I recall, commas served in all situations.
The ChicagoNow managing editor was a newspaper journalist. In conventional newspaper style, where sentences are short and simple, multiple punctuation marks are unnecessary.
I moved from writing for a newspaper to editing for a university. Although the university publications went to a nonacademic audience—alumni, prospective students, parents, donors—the copy submitted for editing was often wordy. My job called for making it less wordy, of course, but I didn’t have to revise the content down to the high school reading level of a newspaper.
Without making a conscious decision, I started writing longer, more complex sentences. Longer paragraphs, too. Slipping in bigger words. Varying the punctuation. Colons and semicolons joined what could have been separate sentences. Dashes became all-purpose fallbacks for adding information.
The only punctuation marks l avoided were intrusive parentheses and the overused exclamation mark.
Had my writing worsened? In theory, I think varied sentence lengths and complexity create better rhythm. More complex sentences may require more than commas and a period. It’s not that dashes, colons, and semicolons should be eliminated, but one’s writing ought not be littered with them. Restraint is in order.
Why? What’s wrong with variety?
While a period at the end of a sentence gives readers a welcome breather, a punctuation mark in midsentence is an interrupter. Commas are the mildest interrupters, with additional information that blends into the flow of the sentence. Dashes and parentheses set off incidental information that may jarringly interrupt the flow.
When a colon or a semicolon lets the reader join two thoughts, the resulting sentence may be too long for the reader to follow. Critics of semicolons also find them pretentious. Kurt Vonnegut once said that the only purpose of the semicolon is to show that you went to college. He wasn’t entirely right; semicolons are required in a list that already contains commas (for instance, Carol, my best friend; John, my financial adviser; and Amy, my masseuse). But it is true that much of the time, a sentence can be revised so that multiple punctuation marks are not needed.
How do you know when you’re overdiversifying punctuation? There are no hard and fast rules, but if you’re using punctuation other than commas and periods every couple of paragraphs, you may want to rewrite a few sentences.
Before submitting this post I double-checked the punctuation and cut two semicolons and a set each of dashes and parentheses. A colon, a pair of dashes, and a pair of parentheses were left. I hope a readership of word people agrees that they’re justified in context.