Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Mastering punctuation is an art form

Sister Dolores was a most persnickety teacher. I had her in the eighth grade at St. Frances of Rome. I kid you not; she was the reincarnation of Baron Von Steuben. If you’ve been to Valley Forge, you’d understand the metaphor. The baron was the consummate drillmaster who whipped Washington’s army into shape.

Sister Dolores was a drill sergeant! She hammered the elements of punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure into her students and would return our essays in a sea of red. I’m not sure I got it. Since I’m from the Bronx I tend to punctuate like I speak and to add insult to injury, I’m Italian.

However, sister taught a valuable lesson. Effective writing goes beyond story. It’s found in the systematic arrangement of words segmented by punctuation. English is full of ambiguity. Its written and spoken form is often convoluted, vague and poetic. Clarity and meaning are frequent causalities of its expression. Punctuation, grammar and sentence structure are cornerstones giving meaning to the complexities of the English language. Punctuation and grammar are not just a collection of rules and constraints. They’re an art.

As a writer I’m fortunate to have a consummate resource advising me on the nuances of writing and literature. Susan Moore, my go-to gal, is an English teacher at La Cañada High School. I am impressed not only by her command of writing and expression but also by her mastery of literature. Whether she is preparing dinner or grading papers, she is available at the drop of a dime to answer the plethora of questions I have relative to writing. Typically a phone conversation would go something like this.

“Sue! Joe! Is possessive case it's or its?” I’d ask.

“Its,” she’d respond.

“Thanks, Sue!”

She’s often my Cliff Notes relative to literature I’ve read more than 40 years ago. I appreciate her willingness to help a struggling writer. Since I advise students on the process of writing, I wanted to do a piece on punctuation. Naturally I’d seek the Oracle Sue Moore for perspective. However our conversation took a different road whereby punctuation became an incidental topic.

She said, “I’m a teacher because I love to see the impact of the written word. Expressing ideas, thoughts, finding clarity, and leaving the reader breathless is the magic of words.”

I asked her for an example. She pulled the last line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” She appeared melancholic. She explained its meaning but I couldn’t write fast enough; a paraphrase will have to suffice. There’s a hopelessness with respect to personal progress. Ultimately our destiny does not push us forward but backward into the past. Hence we are tethered to our past forever.

“What excites me is when students are capable of expressing ideas in their own voice,” she continued. “It’s the capacity to be expressive, to craft a good sentence, a good paragraph thereby creating something cohesive. That’s when they get it. It’s my aha moment,” she said. “Without structure you can’t get to that moment.”

I was mesmerized as Moore explained her fascination relative to the nuances of writers. “What do they gaze upon when they write? Where do they write? Hemingway wrote exactly 500 words per day,” she said. “I have a fascination of where their magic takes place.”

One thing I’ve learned from this attempt is that, writing about punctuation is like kissing your sister. Let me end my attempt with a quote from Lynn Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” She’s a lot more succinct. “If you continue to use the word it’s to reference the possessive case, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Get it?

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JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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