I was chatting to a writer friend last night who had recently been doing some editing and she remarked how much the rules of punctuation seem to have changed since she started out. Should you use double quotation marks or single, for example? Though strict grammarians would probably take a different view, I suspect that punctuation is becoming less and less of an exact science.
I’m probably not alone in using a rather subjective approach to the matter. When I’m writing, I get totally absorbed in the rhythm of my work — each phrase has its own particular beat which in turn feeds into the overall metre of the sentence and then the paragraph. In some ways it’s like a musical score, and if you think of it like that then punctuation becomes a little easier. For example, commas, semi-colons and colons are really the measure of different lengths of pause: picture the shortest, the comma, as a quaver, the semi-colon as a crotchet and the colon as a minim. They are there to isolate phrases so that they make sense to the reader and enable her to pace herself throughout a sustained piece of writing – in some cases they are almost a pause for breath.Writers put punctuation in a sentence in the same way that a climber might put pitons in the side of a mountain: they are way markers to help you navigate the complicated escarpment of a paragraph.
As with all things, it is important to be consistent and work with conviction: if you are confident in how you punctuate your work, then the reader will feel at ease. I don’t think you should lose too much sleep over it in any case, as most publishers have their own house style and you can bet your bottom dollar that whatever you do will be altered to fit in with that.
NB If in doubt, get hold of a copy of Lynne Truss’s definitive book on the subject – Eats Shoots and Leaves. It’s an amusing and informative bible.