There’s lots of books and websites telling you how to punctuate your great novel or blog. There’s lots of rules about subordinate clauses, indirect speech and the use and misuse of apostrophes. Rules, rules. Overawed?
Relax, it’s all really simple. You only have to understand and remember one thing — and it’s not even a rule.
We learn to speak by hearing others — our parents — and responding, and being applauded for our efforts. We aren’t taught to speak (I know, for the deaf and others it’s different), we just practice it. Spoken language is natural, inherent.
But we had to be taught the alphabet, and be taught to read. Reading isn’t natural, it’s artificial — something that’s man-made.
And before there was mass production printing, there wasn’t much impetus to learn to read, and very few people could. And if reading is hard, writing is another (higher) level of difficulty — it’s quite possible, though unusual, to be able to read but not to write.
Printing brought its own, unexpected problems. Before mass printing you could spell words more or less as you pleased, and you certainly didn’t need to be consistent. Printers enforced uniform spelling, so we all had to be taught how to spell. English spelling is difficult — as a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French with Viking and other influences, there is little consistency. Spell checkers are an aid, but are not infallible.
It seems odd today, but books always used to be read aloud. If you were ordinary, you read aloud to yourself. If you were posh, you had someone to read to you. The spoken word is natural, after all, and books were and are just peoples’ (spoken) thoughts written down.
And because you, the reader, had to know where the emphases and the pauses were, you needed help.
The help came in the form of printers’ marks. They were initially designed to facilitate the spoken-aloud reading. Although we mostly read to ourselves these days — silent reading — the marks still show us how to say things aloud.
So, we have commas, semi-colons, colons and full stops to show us pauses (of increasing length), or where the writer digresses from the main theme. And we have new paragraphs to show where there is a significant change of topic, or of speaker. (Much easier than the old fashioned ¶in the middle of a body of text.)
How do we know if a character in a novel is speaking? Easy, they are being quoted, so what they say goes in quotation marks. “Like this.” ‘Or even like this.’ Because choosing single or double is a matter of taste, or design. But if you are James Joyce you’d write like this:
— Sure it’s a fine day, Bloom said, and a good one for a walk.
Joyce didn’t like quotation marks, and used ‘—‘ to indicate that someone was going to speak. He didn’t thereafter indicate what the narrator was saying, and what the character was saying — you have to work it out. It was one way that he indicated the limitations of the printed word to show thoughts, ideas.
If he’d written in French, you would have seen, «Sure it’s a fine day,» Bloom said, «and a good one for a walk.» Or, «Sure it’s a fine day,» Bloom said, and a good one for a walk. You have to work out what Bloom said, what he or the narrator thought. Which just shows us that printers’ marks — punctuation — are no more than symbols that we recognise, and know how to deal with, something to make reading and comprehension easier.
If someone says who, what, where, why, when or how you can be certain they are asking a question. Listen carefully to someone asking a question; their voice rises at the end of the sentence. Sometimes, someone is questioning what’s been said — think of Lady Bracknell and “A handbag”. To show that she’s questioning what she’s been told, this becomes, “A handbag?”
Someone wants to emphasise a point? Emphasis! That’s how! Listen to people speaking!
So, you want to punctuate? Read it aloud, see where the emphases, the pauses the questions are, which character is speaking and you won’t go far wrong. Text-to-speech programs are very helpful for this, and a very useful way of seeing if you’ve left a word out.
Punctuation? It’s all about reading aloud.
The apostrophe? Yes, it too is an aid to speaking aloud, but it’s more than this. Another story.