Narrative ‘Tradecraft’ #9 – Punctuation (more interesting, perhaps, than you may think!)

By Reggie Marra, MA, PCC

Besides being parts of the actual content of this post, what purposes do the single quotation marks, en-dash, parentheses, commas and exclamation point in the title serve, and which of them would be considered a substandard, or even incorrect, usage in formal writing? While this post is not intended as a punctuation primer or review, it does serve as a reminder of punctuation’s purpose in our written language, and as an introduction to the juxtaposition of punctuation and personality in our lives.

The period that ends this sentence indicates a pause in the paragraph and completion of the sentence. Sometimes a period may convey too strong a sense of finality; the semicolon after “finality” provides a period-like pause without indicating completion – it’s often used instead of a conjunction like “and” or “but.” On the other hand, the comma that follows “hand” indicates an even less-final pause and lets us know there’s more coming. Enough of that for now: punctuation, used well, tells us more about what we’re reading than the words alone can, and even gives us useful information about how to read what we’re reading.

More to our point here, how does each of us punctuate our respective narratives? Not in the technical sense of using the correct marks in our written work, but in the point of view and structure that informs our story and how we tell it.

On a day-to-day basis are we curious, ever exploring and questioning our world, punctuating life with question marks?  Or, perhaps, we live life emphatically, enthusiastically – an exclamation point our calling card. Yahooo! Or we may be cautious in our approach, taking life one careful step at a time, exhaustively listing our options, pausing, then moving on to what’s next, with a comma as our trademark.  If our earliest years called out for extreme caution, perhaps the comma is not enough; perhaps we rely on the semicolon to maintain connectedness while providing ourselves with more substantial pause than the comma provides without the finality of the period.

We may feel that our life is so incredibly important to the rest of the world that we “live in quotation marks,” drawing attention to the significance of our every breath; or (at the opposite extreme) we may live in parentheses and see ourselves as occasionally relevant additions to, but never essential parts of, the world at large.  Perhaps we believe that our role in life is to prepare the way for what will come after us:  life as a colon.  We tremble to think that our calling is the identity crisis of the nebulous dash – appearing with various levels of emphasis in popular culture as a questionable stand-in for the comma, parentheses or colon – we do not know who we are – nor do we care (and therein lies our tragedy): a true identity with any one of these is preferable to the dash’s ambiguity – or so we think.

We may discover our life as an apostrophe, similar to, but despite carrying only one quarter of their weight, more extreme than quotation marks.  We live a life of possession and replacement – beyond the attention-drawing approach of the quotation marks, we claim ownership of whom and what we encounter, and when we sense an inability to possess, we simply contract and insert ourselves, replacing part of what we can’t have.  This apostrophic self’s conditioning doesn’t allow us to see that our attempts to possess and to replace are doomed to fail: we are drawn only to the ephemeral power and control, and not the responsibility and care of true ownership – even our best replacements succeed only in changing appearances, never delving beneath the surface to the meaning of that which we strive to affect.

If we find ourselves incessantly commenting on, clarifying, and adding to what others have said before us, and at the same time unable or unwilling to assert any original or personal perspective beyond our opinion of others, perhaps we live our life in or as brackets, which have nothing to do with the “healthy psychological process of bracketing [putting aside] the familiar,” comfortable aspects of the self in order to be fully open to new experience, learning and growth. Or, perhaps, we are indecisive, interminably caught in an either/or worldview, never comfortable with prospective choices or final decisions, thus living life as a slash.

We may feel most comfortable with some sense of certainty, command and finality in our day-to-day decisions – life as a period, period.  We make our point directly, then stop.  What we do next may be relevant to what preceded it, but we leave no doubt that it is separate.  And, irony of ironies, if we live our life as a repetition of the period – as an ellipsis – rather than a strengthened sense of certainty and finality, we find an aversion to completeness.  We constantly imply that there is more, that we have omitted something, but we never do the work required to explicitly identify what it is.

Our options for personal punctuation are indeed many. What’s your story, and how do you tell it?


An earlier, more detailed version of this material appeared in in the 2004 edition of Living Poems, Writing Lives: Spirit, Self and the Art of Poetry, by Reggie Marra. A revised edition is forthcoming in 2018. Copyright © 1998, 2004, 2017 by Reggie Marra.