How punctuation works

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 27 Comments

A lot of my students are annoyed by punctuation. They think it’s a bother to deal with commas, periods, dashes, hyphens, semi-colons and colons.

But then, I take them through two drills. And suddenly, they get it: Punctuation is a fantastic tool for self-expression! It’s the ultimate accessory for the style-savvy writer.

My drills come from fabulous moments in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” This 2003 bestseller is one of my favorite books. Every time I read it, something new sinks in.

I also get a kick out of author Lynne Truss. She comes across as a chatty, slightly batty, middle-aged British spinster who is simply orgasmic over grammar. And who can blame her? After all, punctuation is so, so exciting.

Drill #1 — Punctuate the following sentence:

Woman without her man is nothing


Hmmm, what does that look like to you? Maybe you did this:

Woman — without her man, is nothing.


Then again, maybe you went the opposite way:

Woman: without her, man is nothing.


Wow, look at that. Same words, but two totally different meanings. All because of punctuation.

This little exercise changes the mood. Suddenly, my students stop yawning (cover your mouth!) and fidgeting (don’t you dare take out that cell phone!). Now that I have their full attention, I tell them about the next drill.

“You’re about to read a letter that a woman named Jill has written to Jack,” I explain as I hand out the text of her letter. “Jill is from England. So take that into consideration as you read her words. She’s not writing American English. Just work with what she’s giving you.”

Drill #2 — Punctuate letter; don’t change a word.

Dear Jack I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours Jill

Now the classroom always gets very quiet. Not a bored silence — but an electric stillness that only happens when intelligent human beings are 100 percent engaged in their work.

“So what kind of letter is this?” I ask them.

“A love letter,” someone will call out. That student proceeds to read the letter out loud.

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?


At this point, some students are shaking their heads. One or two even start worrying that they’ve done the exercise wrong. Unlike the majority of their classmates, this minority group has created a letter in which Jill is extremely pissed at Jack.

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?



I wish you could be with me when they we hit this point in the lesson. The other day when I finished Drill #2, a surprised murmuring rippled through the room. It was as if my students had just seen a magic trick and couldn’t believe their eyes…how could one text produce two polar opposite messages???!

Haha — now I go in for the kill. I launch into a passionate talk about dressing for a hot party. We all know what that’s like…

It’s never enough to have the perfect little black dress. A special shirt and cool jeans won’t do the job either. Man or woman, you need the right belt, footwear and jewelry. Earrings, people! We need good earrings!

To have The Look, you MUST style the accessories.

For writers, getting your words on the page is just one part of the writing process. Yes, you’ve chosen the equivalent of your basic garment. And that’s hard work. Bravo! But then, you need all those little dots and squiggly items to nail your voice.

So let’s hear it for accessorizing with punctuation!

So, let’s hear it for accessorizing with punctuation.

So — let’s hear it for….accessorizing with punctuation.

So. Let’s hear it for accessorizing with….punctuation.

So, let’s hear it for accessorizing — with punctuation.

So. Let’s. Hear. It. For. Accessorizing. With. Punctuation.




Update for Friday, April 1, 2011: You might be interested in the children’s version of this punctuation book.

It deals exclusively with one little item — a squiggle that I have found is a major problem area for college students and adults.

Thank you to reader Skye, for reminding me about this book. And thanks to the New School students who, at the end of  our semester together,  gifted me with a copy of this charmer.

Okay. So here’s an example from “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really DO Make a Difference!”:

After we left Grandma, Mommy and I skipped about in the park.

After we left, Grandma, Mommy, and I skipped about in the park.


Comments 27

  1. I’ve been asked to answer my own question:
    What’s your favorite punctuation mark and why?
    Secretly I’ve always had a thing for the question mark. I mean, how many punctuation marks are used as words in their own right? Unlike the period, which hardly entices, the question mark can “hang,” it can “dangle” and even “inspire.” (From Google: “At this moment, this question mark inspires me a lot.”) When was the last time you heard someone say a comma or an apostrophe inspires them? Also, in Spanish you get two for one: ¿Qué tal? And don’t you find their curviness appealing?

    ¿What might my punctuation preferences be when it comes to a prospective partner?

    I try to keep an open mind so as not to limit myself. But I just don’t really know if I could hit it off with someone who’s into semicolons. That would take some explaining. Periods, too, would give cause for concern, unlike dashes, which keeps things flowing, and ellipses, which allow a thought to pleasantly trail off…

    Maybe I’d be most compatible with someone who, like me, appreciates what the question mark does. But who knows? I’ll just have to leave that question mark dangling.

  2. Post

    haha, skye, you still remember the little moments from class! btw, i just noticed that lynne truss now has all kinds of children’s books out now. she’s turning into a punctuation franchise. and daniel, there’s something so guy about liking the dangling qualities of a question mark — is that freudian or what??? but it’s cute.

    alyson, dashes fit an energetic person like you. personally, i’m developing a fondness for semi-colons.

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  4. I think I need this book.

    Grammar can really be a kind of magic. I think it’s easy for people to forget how fun grammar can be, given its association with angry, red ink and cranky elementary school teachers.

    It’s amazing how a comma can manipulate meaning. I’m always drawn to poets and writers that are meticulous about correct grammar usage. Sloppy grammar immediately turns me off from a piece, even if the writing is beautiful. Grammar equals authority.

    I could go on a ridiculous rant here about my love for correct comma usage and my dislike of the semicolon, but I think I’ve nerded-out quite enough. Thanks for sharing! I’m definitely going against my recent self-exclusion from book stores to pick this up. Just one more. Just, one. More.

    1. Post

      natasha — how wonderful. thanks so much for sharing my post. i love feeling like i’m useful. and knowing how to punctuate is a powerful tool for your students. xox

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