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Punctuation, other stylistic rules: obstacle or opportunity?

Punctuation, and other stylistic rules, with all their exceptions and apparently arbitrary forms, can seem like a massive obstacle to writing. If you’re unsure of punctuation (which is reasonable, given all the conflicting opinions on punctuation), the rules are more than a nuisance; they conspire to break into the writerly flow with their demands for figuring out, for example, where to put a comma. Punctuation and other rules are enemies to many writers. Certainly most of us don’t enjoy reading Strunk and White or the massive style manuals that define proper writing style in many academic fields.

But if you think of writing differently—not from the perspective of getting it all down on paper, but from the perspective of reaching interested readers—then these take on a different appearance; punctuation affects meaning and interpretation; to a lesser extent other stylistic elements do, too. And the meaning that the reader can gather is one of a writer’s main concerns.

Rules are not simply some crazy editor’s fetish, nor are they just a tactic to maintain power and class differences (though they may serve that purpose); stylistic guidelines serve a practical purpose in helping readers use the work presented in the most effective way.

Most important of all is punctuation. A naive view of writing is that the words convey the meaning. But, realistically, punctuation plays a key role in determining meaning. Minor punctuation changes can result in major changes in meaning. Placement of a comma, for example, can alter meaning significantly. There is no question but that finding the punctuation that suits the idea is difficult, and this contributes to treating stylistic rules as obstacles. But we don’t struggle only with obstacles. We struggle with our tools, too; whether hammer or computer, tools require skill and effort to use, but we don’t typically view them as obstacles. Punctuation and other stylistic guidelines are tools.

There may be regulations that seem arbitrary; some regulations may serve no obvious purpose, may seem to derive from archaic practices, or may seem to derive from false ideas of usage (e.g., “different should only be followed by from and never by to or than“, which, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” is not supportable in the face of past and present evidence or of logic.”). But the fact that we may not see a reason for a rule does not mean there is none. And, while the absence of a reason for a rule may be reason to disregard it, it’s worth knowing the rule and being able to understand why it doesn’t serve.

Though I have talked mostly about punctuation, I suggest this as a perspective from which to view stylistic rules and guidelines more generally, especially style manuals, which can be intimidating. These manuals are meant to help bring consistency to presentation styles thus easing readers’ tasks. Mostly what style manuals talk about are punctuation and reference citation—about half of the APA manual, for example, is dedicated to just these two things. It’s a lot of details, many of which you’ll never use.

We do not each need to become master of every nuance of our written language, but the greater our mastery, the greater the ease with which we can wield our stylistic tools, the greater our ability to write both well and quickly, two things to be desired by any academic. It all starts with viewing stylistic rules as tools, or, to use the metaphor I opened with, they provide opportunities to make your work more readable.

Copyright © 2007, Dave Harris. All rights reserved

Dave Harris, Ph.D., academic writing coach and editor, helps writers rework their writing process, fine-tune their final drafts, and everything in between (;