Punctuation as Art
By Ariel Lewis
For a long time I was under the belief that punctuation was of secondary interest to the writer, a micro-concern only for the truly fanatical snob or the lowly copywriter. I held this belief, as a casual assumption, until I started teaching ninth grade English, at which point I was forced to learn what for so long I had been doing (often wrongly) by intuition: paying attention to grammar. This included the names of things like clauses and appositives, modifiers, comma splices—God, the comma splices! The errors abounded and multiplied, forcing me to learn the rules I had so long been uninterested in.
Proper punctuation is the mark of all solidly composed sentences, a sign of love and care for language. I was a lazy writer before and, through teaching grammar, became a less lazy one. I became a better reader, too, noticing the fine shape of sentences by William Gass and Grace Paley and Roberto Bolaño and so many others, imitating their forms when I couldn’t figure out how to create my own.
As important as I knew punctuation was, I could still not think of it as art; punctuation was the mute, solid foundation of the house—necessary, but hardly the hero.
Then, I read Toni Morrison’s Sula, a book I’ve taught in my freshman classes for the past three years. The novel, about a remarkable woman named Sula—who refuses to live by society’s impositions—and the community that grapples with and scorns her, is a masterpiece at any level, but I remain convinced that Morrison’s sentences are why I return again and again and again to this book, why it captures the attention of my students year after year after year. They beg to keep reading for sentences as lushly punctuated as these:
Hannah exasperated the women in the town—the “good” women, who said, “One thing I can’t stand is a nasty woman”; the whores, who were hard put to find trade among black men anyway and who resented Hannah’s generosity; the middling women, who had both husbands and affairs, because Hannah seemed too unlike them, having no passion attached to her relationships and being wholly incapable of jealousy.
The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance.
The novel is a book of voices, its omniscient third person blending Morrison’s high lyricism with the dialect and idiomatic speech patterns of the black community of “The Bottom,” the name of Morrison’s fictionalized Ohio town. In capturing these voices, Morrison allows for fragments and absent commas, and occasionally a marvelous run on.
The following sentence comes from the middle of the book, where Morrison makes the only departure from omniscient third into first person direct address. This section is narrated from the point of view of a woman named Nel, who has just learned (spoiler alert!) that her husband has cheated on her with her best friend, Sula.
They will never give me the peace I need to get from sunup to sundown, what good are they, are you trying to tell me that I am going to have to go all the way through these days all the way, O my god, to that box with four handles with never nobody settling down between my legs even if I sew up those old pillow cases and rinse down the porch and feed my children and beat the rugs and haul the coal up out of the bin even then nobody, O Jesus, I could be a mule or plow the furrows with my hands if need be or hold these rickety walls up with my back if need be if I knew that somewhere in this world, in the pocket of some night I could open my legs to some cowboy lean hips but you are trying to tell me no and O my sweet Jesus what kind of cross is that?
The sentence is the impossible, breathless pleadings of a bereaved woman, who just a page earlier admits, “Dying was OK because it was sleep.” By the end of the sentence, the reader feels Nel’s relief at the idea of an ending: for Nel, the death of her marriage and friendship, and for the reader, the welcome death of the sentence.
Herein, an observation: punctuation, done properly, is neither artless, nor random.
How can treating punctuation as art elevate a work of prose? And furthermore, how does a writer as brilliant as Morrison know where to apply the rules rigidly, and where to depart from them?
I’ve come to realize that punctuation serves two functions. First, it is the rhythmic indicator of the sentence, which combined with diction and syntax, informs our aural and emotive reading of a work of fiction or nonfiction. It strikes me as a sheer wonder of simplicity how much we are able to convey with such a relatively limited range of symbols about how a piece of writing is meant to be read. In English, we use only fifteen different punctuation marks with any amount of frequency (counted here: the period, comma, semicolon, colon, exclamation mark, question mark, hyphen, en dash, em dash, slash, open parentheses, closed parentheses, quotation mark, ellipses, and apostrophe, though certainly there are additional, rarely used forms, such as the interrobang). Of these fifteen, a much smaller handful take on the brunt of the work.
What is marvelous about punctuation in prose is that we’re able to convey rhythm without the use of the poetic or musical devices of meter or rhyme; the unit of composition is the sentence, and the sentence can be long or short, looping or clipped, swift or leisurely. This is never merely a result of punctuation—writers such as Gary Lutz (“The Sentence is a Lonely Place”) and William Gass (“The Architecture of the Sentence”) have commented brilliantly on the roles of diction and syntax in this regard. Less attention has been paid to punctuation, which models at scale the mood and movements of the sentence. Scanning a sentence for its punctuation, as one might scan a sheet of music, reveals how the text must sound. At the very least, it tells us where we might breathe, and in demanding breath, imports some sense of human life into the page.
The second purpose of punctuation is ontological. It reveals the relationships of thought at work in the body of the text. In his essay “Finding a Form,” from a collection by the same name, William Gass writes, “A sentence, any sentence, is consequently a passage of thought.” This is how punctuation transcends its ordinary function as commentator on the text to become part of the text itself, how it comes to act as a linguistic sign equivalent to a word or expression. It is more than metronome; it means.
It is in this second function that I find myself obsessively interested. How does it mean? In the prose of writers I admire, I see at least two distinct ways. In the first, as in the above Morrison example, punctuation serves to extend character or narrative voice. In the second, it acts as a signal, or model, of the story’s inner logic: a tiny gesture in service to the larger gestures of narrative shape and tradition.
For this, I consider the writings of Angela Carter. Well known for her contemporary, feminist renderings of classic fairy tales, Carter’s work is steeped in fabulist tradition, a tradition defined, to borrow from another contemporary fabulist, Kate Bernheimer, by its use of “flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic.” Bernheimer goes on—in a fabulous essay titled “Fairy Tale as Form, Form as Fairy Tale,” to explain that, “These techniques have shown up in some way in nearly every literary fairy tale over hundreds of years from the seventeenth century to the present, across the globe and across styles.”
This begs the question: why write contemporary tales at all? Carter addresses this, in her foreword to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault: “Each century tends to create or re-create fairy tales after its own taste.” In the seventeenth century, writers like Perrault thought, “Let’s not bother our heads with the mysteries of sado-masochistic attraction. We must learn to cope with the world before we can interpret it.”
So what does Carter add to the fabulist form? How does she strive to reinterpret the tales through a feminist lens?
At the risk of sounding as though I intend to greatly oversimplify Carter’s work, the answer is semicolons.
One has only to rifle through the pages of The Bloody Chamber to note the preponderance of them: 40 instances alone in “The Erl-King,” a seven page story, and 16 in “The Snow Child,” which tops out at a mere seven paragraphs.
At first glance, her frequent use of the highly-showy semicolon may seem like a mere writerly tic. However, when considering them as an artful move, they begin to feel deeply intentional. Consider this: the purpose of the semicolon is to draw two independent clauses, or ideas, together, in order to emphasize or reveal the logical connection between them. A semicolon demands inference from the reader.
Consider also: the fairy tale’s use of “intuitive logic,” which Bernheimer explains as “a sort of nonsensical sense. The language of traditional fairy tales tells us that first this happened, and then that happened. There is never an explanation of why.”
Where Carter applies semicolons, she is actively resisting the tradition of tale by asking the reader to make logical leaps—to ascribe meaning, and motivation, and context to the traditionally flat, unexplained actions of the characters. This is how the work achieves its feminism. Why is he doing that? What are the consequences of that choice? Who has the agency here?
I see this most powerfully in the climax (both narratively and sexually) of “The Snow Child,” in which a married Count describes a young virgin into being: “‘I wish I had a girl as white as snow,’ / ‘I wish I had a girl as red as blood,’ / ‘I wish I had a girl as black as that bird’s feather.’” The Count’s jealous wife, trying to get rid of the girl, asks her to pick a rose: “So the girl picks a rose; pricks her finger on the thorn; bleeds; screams; falls.”
What might have seemed driven by “nonsensical sense” (Why does the girl die from picking the rose?) becomes all too interpretable in Carter’s composition, the literal death foreshadowed by the metaphoric one: she is dead because she is no longer a virgin, and a girl who is not a virgin is not a girl at all.
By way of conclusion, I will elucidate one final example of punctuation’s power, an example I see as striking perhaps the perfect balance between evoking character and inscribing logic. It comes from John Edgar Wideman in his microfiction, “Witness.”
Sitting here six floors up on my little balcony when I heard shots and saw them boys running. My eyes went straight to the lot beside Mason’s bar, and I saw something black not moving in the weeds and knew a body was lying there and knew it was dead. A 15-year-old boy, the papers said. Whole bunch of sirens and cops and spinning lights the night I’m talking about. I watched till after they rolled him away and then everything got quiet again as it ever gets round here, so I’m sure the boy’s people not out there that night. Didn’t see them till next morning. I’m looking down at those weeds. A couple’s coming slow on Frankstown with a girl by the hand, had to be the boy’s baby sister. They pass terrible Mason’s and stop exactly next to the spot the boy died. How did they know. Then they commence to swaying, bowing, hugging, waving their arms about. Forgive me, Jesus, but look like they grief dancing, like the sidewalk too cold or too hot they had to jump around not to burn up. How’d his people find the spot. Could they hear my old mind working to guide them, lead them like I would if I could get up out this damn wheelchair and take them by the hand.
My eyes snag on the line, “How did they know.” And again, a few beats later: “How’d his people find the spot. Could they hear my old mind working to guide them, lead them like I would if I could get up out this damn wheelchair and take them by the hand.” Any studious workshopper would be quick to point out the missing question marks, and a good copy-editor might slash through those periods in red ink.
More interesting is to consider why the question mark is less functional here, where it is grammatically necessitated, than the chosen period.
“Witness,” is a story about what can be seen, but not spoken. Perhaps the questions aren’t punctuated as such because the narrator knows there are no answers. The internal logic revealed by this intentionally alternative choice is the logic of a world where there is no room for questions, a world that is morally and racially black and white. What questions could this narrator ask of anyone in such a world and expect an answer?
So I propose: punctuation is more than a tedious fixture of grammar. When we engage with punctuation as art, we must engage with the logic of our own narratives and with the people who populate them; punctuation literally provokes the shapes of our sentences and is, I would argue, the life-force of fiction, encoding and giving breath to the patterns of our minds.
ARIEL LEWIS is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and educator whose short prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Literary Review, Flock, Wildness, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the M.F.A. program in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was also the Third Year Fellow. Among other honors, she was awarded a scholarship to attend The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and shortlisted for The Plaza Literary Prize, a national novella competition. A Northern California native, she currently lives in Miami, Florida, where she teaches English and Creative Writing.