By Freelance writer, John Forde in Paris, France
There’s a joke on the back of a recent book:
A panda walks into a cafee and orders a sandwich. He eats it, takes out a gun and fires it into the air, then gets up to leave the restaurant.
“Hold it,” says the waiter. “What on earth was that all about?”
“I’m a panda,” says the bear. “Look it up.” And with that the animal tosses a badly punctuated book about wildlife on the counter and heads for the door.
The waiter flips to the relevant page and reads, “Panda: Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
Groan if you want, but with this, writer Lynne Truss rallies punctuation “sticklers” everywhere in her new diatribe against comma-and-apostrophe abuse, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”
Right she is.
Though it doesn’t always have to count in the way we’ve been taught to think. That’s something I’d better explain.
Punctuation, says one newspaper style guide, is “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.”
It’s the glue that holds language together.
Or, if you’d rather, well-used punctuation marks are the stoplights, detours, and street signs of language. On all those counts, I’m sure you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement.
(If not, stop now and nod your head. There. Was that so difficult?)
But sometimes, swerving from the path of 100% perfect punctuation is a handy little trick for making your prose actually MORE readable and inviting rather than less.
In the case of a travel writer, for instance, you can very occasionally break from punctuation tradition and get a good result.
Let me just give you five quick examples…
The Mercurial M-Dash – You know the “m-dash.” It’s the long hyphen-looking thing that helps set apart — and even frame — a key thought in the middle of a sentence. (See what I just did there?)
A lot of well-trained writers snub the M-Dash. It suggests broken thinking. You start saying something, and then interrupt yourself, right there in the middle of your own sentence.
But when can it actually help to break with an M-dashed phrase? Well, for one thing, when you really want to emphasize a point — dramatically, mind you — that you don’t want your readers to zip past. A bit like holding up a finger in conversation and saying, “now listen to this detail for a second.”
The Parenthetical Pull of Parentheses – Good writers also frown on overusing, even abuse, of parenthetical remarks (you know the type). And really, parentheses are not used much in travel articles either.
But sometimes (for instance, when you’re using a “wink wink, nudge nudge” style, making a whispered aside to your reader) it doesn’t hurt to throw a comment inside parentheses.
You don’t want to overuse this, of course. But done right and once in awhile, it’s handy for highlighting the conversational, even conspiratorial tone some travel articles might take.
Culling Interest With Quotation Marks – We’re not supposed to use quotation marks unless we’re actually quoting someone who said something.
Like, for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright. He once said, “I’m all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let’s start with typewriters.” Sharp fella.
Still, quotation marks have a strange power over readers. They have a way of pulling readers in. You won’t have much opportunity in travel writing to just throw in quote marks at random. But it’s worth remembering, when you really want to make a point, that if you can get someone credible to say what you want to say for you, it’s much stronger.
Not just because the source is credible, but also because of this power quote marks have to heighten the impact of whatever falls in between.
You can quote me on that.
The Evocative Ellipsis – The ellipsis, you’ve seen… haven’t you? It’s that… how do I explain this… series of little… you know… dots that copywriters use so often in their copy.
This can drive some editors crazy. So again, you’ll want to use the ellipsis with caution.
The ellipsis is supposed to just indicate missing text in a phrase. Especially where that text can be implied without being stated.
But very occasionally, especially if a travel article is relating conversation… or revealing someone’s chain of thoughts… you might give the ellipsis a shot.
Why? Because it helps approximate the halting way many people speak. We let ideas trail off… we dance around a notion… we come back to the beginning. And we use these things — the “…” — to help us do so more fluidly and gently then you might if you were a whip-cracking grammarian.
Try it. But again, be careful. Ellipses are like potato chips… once you start using them, you’ll find it hard to stop… see what I mean?
The Ambitious Apostrophe – Contractions aren’t just for the delivery room anymore, my friend.
Because, yet again, where a formal writer might frown at casual, contracted terms like “I’d”… “isn’t”… even “ain’t”… they can also go a long way toward making a piece of writing more casual and conversational.
And the good news about contractions is, with these, you can use them almost as often as you’d like (except, perhaps, with the exception of “ain’t”).
They make your writing flow smoothly. But unlike the other tricks we’ve just talked about, contractions tend to disappear into the text rather than stand out. In a good way, increasing the flow of what you’re trying to say.
The more you write, the more exceptions you’ll find to the hard and fast punctuation rules.
For instance, you’ll find yourself making occasional use of half sentences with no verbs… one-line paragraphs… even one word sentences.
But of course, like Picasso learned to draw before he “unlearned” it, you’ll want to master the rules before you break them. And one place to start might be with Lynne Truss’ book, mentioned above.
Best of luck!
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]