What’s In Your Punctuation? A Lot, Apparently

writing punctuation

Part of basic elementary school training is learning the basics of punctuation: A comma does this, a period does that. Over time, we get better at using those basics consistently. That helps ensure writing is more understandable and has a better flow.

But how much of punctuation relates to voice, that mysterious thing that agents, publishers and readers talk about with such simultaneous reverence and excitement?

Punctuation revelations from stylometric analysis

That’s the question Lucas Reilly explored in an article for Mental Floss. Reilly reported how people have used stylometric analysis, which is the process of using quirks within writing samples to identify who wrote the text, for decades. But now, a team led by Alexandra Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, applied the concept to genres and the evolution of author style over time. Could you, for example, tell a romance novel from a science fiction one, based just on the punctuation in it?

The researchers discovered that this is totally possible. They created formulas that could pinpoint authors with 72 percent accuracy, and genre at 65 percent. Not perfect, but still pretty impressive.

Tools have sway

The researchers also noted that we’re using commas and semicolons less than we used to. The use of periods and quotation marks and periods, by contrast, has gone up. This shift might reflect the massive technological shift we’re going through. As people struggle to focus online, the emphasis is on concise writing. People throw in plenty of quotes to try to improve credibility and authority. That’s arguably necessary to be heard in the noise of the Internet. (More cynically, this also might be a reflection that we are struggling to rephrase concepts in our own words.) The idea that the tools we use might sway us to adopt writing tendencies we otherwise might not have matters. The tools we select are always within our control. But we must be aware of their influence to make more conscious choices about what to utilize.

Dismantling the norms

But let’s go back to those stats for a second. Each genre arguably has its own “feel”. This arguably is part of what endears readers to one type of book compared to another. Punctuation clearly is playing a huge role in providing that feeling. It’s a lot like music–hip hop doesn’t feel like classical, and classical doesn’t feel like jazz. Within those, composers communicate within a set of rules in their own way. Brahms doesn’t sound like Mozart, yet they’re both “classical”. We cannot dismantle that completely, at least not all at once, because it would feel “off” to the reader who has a set of expectations about what the genre needs to be or have.

But what if we messed around with that? What if we broke away, committed more to our own style of punctuation, and didn’t conform so much to the genre? The potential is there to create something entirely fresh–you know, that characteristic that agents and publishers say they are constantly looking for in manuscripts. What if, for example, a Victorian romance novel had the pointed brevity of Hemingway but maintained all the classic plot “essentials”? Wouldn’t that make it marvelously easier for writers to cross genres? Wouldn’t it prevent people from unnecessarily labeling authors? Wouldn’t writers be better able to explore all kinds of storytelling instead of getting stuffed in a box?

If you don’t like boxes, read, and read everything

And this all raises another question. Writers always influence other writers to some degree. As you might see in some of my posts, for instance, I use longer structures, and I’m not afraid of commas. It’s a testimony to the many hours I spent with Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Melville, and a whole gaggle of others. So what if we’re holding ourselves back by immersing ourselves in a preferred category? What if we’ve read so much science fiction or whatever else that the sound and rhythm of it is too ingrained and we cannot truly speak as ourselves?

So this brings to the fore the need for writers to read a lot, and to read everything. We need to understand that there is more than one sound, cadence, or way to break ideas apart or string them together. And while all of us have to be concerned with “readability” for the audience, there is no “right” cadence, sound, or method. We stay aware of that the more we expose ourselves to variety.

It’s a lot like Paul Maclean (Brad Pitt) finding his own way with his fishing rod in A River Runs Through It. Find your pace. Find your flow. It’s your own mark and secret byline, if you let it be.