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From the
Other Side
Without Her Man
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2004 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved

Warning! Danger! Grammar alert!

I'm about to talk about punctuation. Wake up, you there with the mouse in your hand! Come on, it won't be as bad as you think. No lectures, just one single question and a magic trick.

Here's the question: How would you punctuate the following sentence?

A woman without her man would be nothing.

If you punctuated it like so --

A woman, without her man, would be nothing.

-- the magic goes round and round and says: You're a guy. But had you punctuated it this way --

A woman: without her, man would be nothing.

-- Jeffmar the Magnificent would have said you were female. If this doesn't make sense, try saying it out loud. That should help.

The point is that small changes in punctuation can make a big difference in meaning. Admittedly, punctuation doesn't make this much difference all the time, but as the above sentence shows, it can. Have you ever been reading a story and stopped to say, "Huh?" because something just didn't make sense? The bottom line is that correct punctuation can make a difference in the enjoyment of the reader... and that should be important to any of us who write.

It should be, but in some cases it isn't, which is a shame. On one of the mailing lists I belong to there is a writer who will remain nameless; I always, but always, delete his stories on sight without reading them. The gentleman in question is prolific, and his work may actually have other literary virtues, but I'll never know because his problems with punctuation (and spelling, grammar, et cetera ad nauseum) are so consistent and all-pervasive that reading his stuff is a far more onerous chore than simply clicking the DELETE button. This person is aware that his sloppy writing habits can repulse some readers -- he has been the topic of discussion of at least two different threads that I can remember, one rather extensive -- but sadly, where his work is concerned he steadfastly insists that the readers can, to use a slang term, "love it or leave it".

Rather than list punctuation problems and give generic solutions for how to fix them that never really seem to apply when you're actually writing, I'll keep things short and just suggest the following:

  1. Don't be afraid of commas. Some folks use too many, but most seem to forget all about them.
  2. Read your characters' dialogue aloud -- the words they actually say. Decide how you want them to say it and then add punctuation to suit.
  3. Most word processors have surprisingly good spelling and grammar checkers. Speaking solely from my own experience, which is limited to Word 2000, I offer the following observation: Word 2000's spelling check and grammar check seem to be right about 90% to 95% of the time -- which means that Word is wrong about 5% to 10% of the time. So you shouldn't automatically alter any sentence that the program points out as being a problem, but you should at least give the 'flagged' sentence a second look in case the program did get it right. Buy a cheap style manual and use it to double-check anything that doesn't make sense. I use and can vouch for the Merriam-Webster Style Manual; as well, the Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers and Strunk & White's The Elements of Style are also worthwhile parts of a writer's toolbox. All three of these books are available from half.com; as of this writing, the Merriam-Webster is going for $4.00 plus shipping costs (which are typically on the order of $2.00), and the other two can be had for $0.75 plus shipping.
  4. Have a friend read and edit your story before you submit it. For example, when we prepare a document for Infinite Imagination eBooks, it usually takes four separate edits once the author gives it to us.

Now, if I haven't scared anyone away, get out there and start writing!

Jeffrey M. Mahr
Senior Editor, Infinite Imagination eBooks

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