Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

October 31, 2011

Writers’ Corner: Let’s eat grandma!

Mineral Wells Index

By Gerald Warfield | Special to the Index

Oh my, and she is such a nice old lady, too. But wait, perhaps we can save her! Yes, a comma right after “eat” should do the trick. “Let’s eat, grandma.” Much better.

The need for punctuation is not always so urgent, but from its first appearance, almost 3,000 years ago, its purpose was always clarity. The earliest writing systems, hieroglyphics and cuneiform, did not use punctuation. It was probably the Phoenicians who invented it, along with the alphabet. The first example we have is on a stone tablet commemorating the victory of the Moabites over the Israelites carved in 840 BC. It was written using the Phoenician alphabet, and it employed horizontal strokes to indicate the grouping of words. Later, the ancient Greeks used dots for punctuation, a dot on the base line, a dot midway up, and a raised dot roughly equivalent to the colon, comma and period.

Now, here’s the rub. Scholars have claimed that these early markings were used by Greek playwrights, such as Euripides and Aristophanes, to indicate to the actors when to pause, and today’s punctuation is, by extension, for the same purpose, namely, to indicate pauses.

But it ain’t so. Punctuation indicates structure. It divides strings of words into sentences, clauses and phrases. Take the comma, the most controversial of these markings. You might pause at a comma, but then again, you might not. If you inserted a comma every time you paused in a text you’d end up with a lot of unnecessary commas. One of the first things famous acting teacher, Stella Adler, told her students about their scripts was to ignore the punctuation.

In our first example, the comma before “grandma” indicates direct address. Someone is being spoken to, namely grandma, and direct address is always set off by commas. You may also pause there, but you do so because you know the meaning of the sentence.

I’ll end with another famous example. A well-meaning zookeeper once placed the following description on the panda enclosure. “Eats, shoots and leaves.” He or she used what in grammar is called the serial comma—incorrectly. If these were a series of actions, then we’d have a very violent panda on our hands. In fact, “shoots” and “leaves” are both objects of “eats,” and that is indicated by NOT using a comma.

There’s a well-known book written by Lynne Truss that uses the panda example for the title of her book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” It’s a good book, although it’s peppered with some British usage. An even better book for Americans is “Painless Grammar,” by Rebecca Elliott.

If you write and want to improve your craft, consider joining the Brazos Writers Group that meets the fourth Tuesday of every month at the Boyce Ditto Public Library. For more information, call the library or Gerald Warfield at (940) 327-8789.

Gerald Warfield is an award-winning writer of fantasy and science fiction. See his website at http://www.geraldwarfield.com.