This week could have used a few more periods and a few less commas. I get frustrated with the way some things around me and some things within me keep going on and on and on. I long for endings and new beginnings. I would have even liked a few hard returns, a few new paragraphs, and instead I got dashes and parentheses. Life is punctuated by days and weeks and months.

As in life, so in writing. That’s how punctuation puts the life in writing: it helps with pacing and transition. It helps us know how things work together and which things modify others. It tells us when things end and when things continue on. Words create meaning, and punctuation adds context and rhythm and artistry.

Often when people tell me they don’t like to write, what they really mean is that they don’t like following the rules of punctuation and grammar. Sometimes they just don’t know the rules, and they assume they are doing it all wrong. Sometimes people break the rules without realizing it and in the process say things they don’t mean.

I see people living their lives with the same sort of hesitancy. They put periods at the end of their marriages or friendships or jobs when all they really needed was comma. Or maybe a dash. On the other hand, they use commas and semicolons and far too many parentheses around their bad habits and their abusive relationships and the dead-end jobs. They don’t realize they can add a good hard return and get those things completely behind them.

Some people use exclamation points after everything. Drama! Drama! Drama! Other people overuse quotations marks: “You will never amount to much,” he told me.

And far too many people add a period when they should use a question mark, see?

They don’t realize that as in writing, so in life: punctuation matters.

“I think we are wise not to neglect our cases—our uppers and our lowers—our line breaks and our paragraph breaks, our periods and our commas, our excesses and our paucities, right down to the last dot,” writes Noy Holland on a post at Glimmer Train. “We are right to be afraid, and affectionate. We are right to scrutinize our habits of attention, to police the continuous compromise between the want to be recognizable and the want to be other; between the habitual approach that reduces perception to preperception, the ease of the unambiguous, the smooth ride of meaning, and the contrary cyclic wandery approach that can turn things to static and soup.”

But the real point of punctuation is not the rigid application. Rather, we learn the rules of punctuation so that they can serve us and our writing. Not the other way around. Sometimes, people even break the rules on purpose to add a little flair to their writing. “If we want the mind to flex, if we want a limbering of association, the unconventional use of punctuation can provide a bodily gusto: it can louden, slow, accelerate, stop,” Holland says.


In the same way, we play with the breaks and pauses and transition of life. A week like this one could have used more periods, true. But I know what periods do. They indicate the long pause. The end of something. Maybe all I needed was the short pause–just a break, a moment, a chance to breathe. Maybe I just needed the comma to understand the true meaning of all that is being written in my life.

What about you? How do you punctuate your life? This weekend, download my guide to punctuating your life and determine where to place the periods, commas, and exclamation points in your own life.


Photo by than Lofton, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.