Punctuation in Stories by Philip Emery

Immanion Press author, Phil Emery, has donated the following blog post.

Just how important is punctuation to a story?   I’m thinking in particular of the comma,  and particularly the comma in prose.   (Verse can often do away with it and rely on line breaks – in fact the use of them here can feel overdone.   Some poets, those at the other end of the spectrum from the ‘if-it-doesn’t-rhyme-it-isn’t’ school,  consider punctuation an admission of failure.)

Putting aside the consideration of precision of meaning, I also regard punctuation as the ‘soundtrack’ to narrative:  ideally having an impact on the emotional rhythms of what’s happening without the reader realizing it.   (To quote the late Steve Tompkins on the similarities and differences between Tolkien and R.E.Howard:  “The adrenaline-aftermath victory celebration on the field of Tanasul, with its sword slapped home in scabbard and the brilliant touch of a warrior-king’s blood- stained fingers in his own hair, “as if feeling there his re-won crown,” has it all over the sugar shock of the field of Cormallen in The Return of the King, with its heraldic eagles bursting into song as if to compensate for the fact that John Williams is not available to tell us how to feel.”.)

Ideally, if the writer’s good enough,  style and precision can work in harmony.   Ideally.   But in reality it sometimes comes to a choice.   If you can’t be stylishly precise then be precise.   (Let’s leave deliberate ambiguity out of this.)

Sometimes the comma works for those emotional rhythms, but sometimes its use or misuse or absence in the service of meaning can be fatal.   (I seem to remember an episode of David Renwick’s ‘Jonathan Creek’ where a mispunctuated letter led to murder.)

So it grieved me greatly to receive a rejection to a story, ‘Pricks of Conscience,’ from a website citing a number of reasons with the thrust of the decision centring on a claim of numerous grammatical errors.   Now, I suspect my technical judgment is fairly sound – yet reading back over the story I could see no such errors.  The one example cited in the rejection referred to a missing comma which was not in actual fact missing.   This led me to wonder if the other numerous errors might not be equally non-existent.   I began to suspect an eldritch curse – known in modern day as a computer glitch.   Paranoia and imagination is a powerful mix…

Dear Cutthroat Quarterly,

Thank you for your recent response to my short story submission ‘Cursed Until Further Notice’.   Rest assured I’ve no intention of asking you to reconsider the tale or indeed to respond to this letter, but the rejection throws up some disturbing issues that I think should be pointed out.

Considerations of characterization, length and structure are admittedly subjective – however the thrust of the rejection centred on a claim of numerous grammatical errors.   After some two millennia writing, over eight centuries teaching creative writing, and sixty two and a half degrees in the subject, I suspect my technical judgment is fairly sound – yet I see no such errors in the story, and the one example cited in your response referred to a missing comma on page three thousand and fifteen which, if you would do me the great courtesy to check, is not,  in actual fact,  missing. 

Eternal wishes,

Scribing Dutchman.

No, I didn’t send this to the website in question – but I did question the matter a bit more sensibly.   And sure enough…

“Thank you very much for your reply. Your points are very much appreciated. We’ve taken some time to look into the matter with our technical team and have found that you are quite correct regarding the issue of grammar in your story, in particularly concerning the use of commas. As a result we would like to offer our sincere apologies for our mistake.

As you probably know, part of our service is to turn Word text documents into eBooks (or ePub files to be exact). This process begins when we receive a new document and it is run through our ebook conversion system. Until now there have been no issues with this process but we have recently updated the software, and in the case of your submission it seems that, unbeknownst to us, there was a glitch which removed various points of punctuation from the text due to it having a particular type of formatting. This meant that our editorial team was presented with a story that appeared to be unpolished and in need of further work. This in turn reflected badly on other areas of the story as it was assessed.

On a final note, we have read your story in the format in which it was originally intended, without the prejudices that arise from reading work replete with errors (albeit software generated), and would be keen to publish it should you still be willing to have us do so. ”

So there we have it.   Punctuation not only affects meaning and rhythm but influences judgments such as quality of characterization and dialogue and structure and just about anything else.

(No commas were harmed in the making of that last sentence…)


2 thoughts on “Punctuation in Stories by Philip Emery

  1. Adding to Phil’s article, a problem I ran into this year is that swapping documents with someone who uses an earlier or later version of Microsoft Word can also throw up all manner of horrible glitches. I believe this is something that’s begun to occur fairly recently. I was working on a book with someone and somewhere in the ethers between our computers all the full stops (or periods) were removed. Correcting this error (a lengthy job) and then swapping files again merely recreated the problem. The only way to solve it was for me to upgrade to a newer version of Word, and hey presto, problem solved.

    Just thought I’d add this in case anyone reading Phil’s post has encountered a similar problem.

    Storm Constantine, Immanion Press Commissioning Fiction Editor

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