The art of punctuation

Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed this morning, I spotted an interesting piece at about punctuation in novels — and only the punctuation. In the piece, Adam J. Calhoun talks about writing a computer code (available online for free) that reduces text to its punctuation — and nothing else. The image at the lead of his piece is a side-by-side comparison of two of his favorite books, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

Punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (right). Image by Adam J. Calhoun

(Full disclosure: Blood Meridian is also one of my favorite novels, but, though I love Faulkner in general, I couldn’t stand Absalom, Absalom! the first time I read it. It felt like the worst of Faulkner’s self-indulgences. I should probably give it a second chance, but this image of the punctuation, as indicative of what I remember hating about that novel, isn’t encouraging me!)

Others have done this, too, and have taken the punctuation-imaging process a beautiful step further by turning the punctuation into graphic art; you can find Nicholas Rougeux’s Between the Words posters for Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Ulysses, and other classics online.

Here’s a close-up on Rougeux’s poster for Pride and Prejudice:


But Adam J. Calhoun isn’t just interested in the visuals. In his article, he uses the punctuation in novels to talk about the shape and rhythm of the prose. “This morse code is both meaningless and yet so meaningful,” he writes. “We can look and say: brief sentence; description; shorter description; action; action; action. [. . .] Blood Meridian is short sentences. A question or two? Maybe, but then more sentences. And yet Absalom, Absalom! is wild; moreover, one might say, it is statements, within statements, within statements: who doesn’t love that?”

He also looks back at the text and discusses the lengths of sentences, which seems like a slightly different exercise until you think about punctuation’s role in organizing those words and shaping those sentences: “Punctuation does more than simply carve out a space for words. It separates them. Clearly, some authors are more okay with long rambling sentences than others. William Faulkner looks at your short sentences and says nothing less than fuck you.”

And of course, all this made me think about my own work — especially Hagridden, which has generated some discussion among readers and reviewers about its punctuation, particularly the absence of quotation marks. (The novel does contain one pair of quotation marks, in chapter 20, around the title of the song “Hush-a-by baby.”) Whenever people ask me why I left out the quotation marks in my dialogue, I usually quip that I wrote the first draft so fast that punctuation just slowed me down. And that’s true, but this is also true: when I tried adding the quotation marks back in, they got in the way — they seemed to clutter the page and interfere with the kind of storytelling I was trying to do in that book.

Calhoun addresses that in his own analysis of punctuation in books: “The difference between a Hemingway and a McCarthy is the dispensation of quotation marks. When the warm, curling hands of the quotation is gone the reader is left with a broader sense of space.”

I like that, but I find the opposite can be true, too: in the case of Hagridden, I feel that by eliminating the quotation marks and running dialogue into the storytelling, making everything — even the conversations — part of one cohesive narrative, the prose becomes denser, like a thick bayou ground-growth that you have to carefully navigate.

But Calhoun’s work also made me wonder how the other punctuation in my novel helps a reader navigate that text, so I went back to my file and cut out all the words. The results are interesting. In manuscript form, the book is roughly 230 double-space pages (in print, it’s about the same length); cutting out all the words reduces the whole book to five and a half pages.

Here’s the first page of the punctuation-only Hagridden:

Hagridden punctuation

That’s a lot of periods, more question marks than I realized, and fewer em dashes that I was expecting. I’m kind of pleased to see so few exclamation points, though — I once took a summer writing workshop with Texas writer Robert Flynn, who insisted that every writer is allowed one exclamation point per year, so we’d better use it wisely. I knew not to take that literally, but I did take it to heart, and I try as much as possible to convey excitement, surprise, and horror through the language I use, rather than the cheat of the exclamation point. In the 230-some manuscript pages of Hagridden, it turns out I used only 32 exclamation points — about one for every seven pages. Compare that with all the questions people have in this tumultuous period in history: the novel contains 276 question marks, more than one per page.

Calhoun also calls attention to the decline of the semicolon, illustrating in his article a marked drop in semicolons from 19th-century prose to 20th-century prose. I, for one, rather enjoy the semicolon, to the extent that I sometimes think I overuse it — but it turns out Calhoun is right, because Hagridden contains only 13 semicolons. I swore I used more than that, but there you have it. Same goes for the em dash, which I also feel like I overuse; in Hagridden, I used just 27 of them.

Compare those figures with the 3,535 commas and the 3,883 periods in the book.

Most interestingly, Hagridden does not contain even a single pair of parentheses; there are no asides in that book! And I used just one ellipses in the whole book, a single moment in dialogue where a character lets her thoughts trail off, literally afraid to finish her sentence. (It appears in the penultimate chapter, if you’re looking for it.)

So thanks to Adam J. Calhoun for giving me the excuse to revisit my work and look at how I punctuate my words. Of course, the trick now is to forget I ever saw that article and get back to the writing without obsessing over the punctuation; I have a terrible habit of trying to let craft drive the drafting rather than saving it to inform the revisions. Still, good food for thought, and I’ll look forward to paying a different kind of attention to my punctuation in the future.


3 thoughts on “The art of punctuation

  1. The punctuation in ‘Hagridden’, including in dialogue, worked perfectly for me. Your comment about the ‘density’ of the text is spot on. The technique resulted in a slower reading-speed and more absorption into the story. It was a piece of craft.

    When my publisher asked me to write a teen-vampire novel, I dashed one off with the dialogue rendered in italics. It was an experiment, and somehow it worked, because no one who read or reviewed the book even mentioned it!

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