Andromeda: “Just” Punctuation

Flying to
the first residency of my MFA program five years ago, I was still having second
doubts. The first class I entered—8 a.m., everyone bumping and muttering with
Styrofoam coffee cups in hand—was standing-room only. The topic: punctuation.
That’s right, not something sexier, like “truth” in creative nonfiction or how
to publish your first novel. Just punctuation.

At least
one other class was running at the same time, and the Antioch LA MFA model does
not feature required attendance at all classes. These people could have slept
in. They could have turned around as soon as they saw there weren’t enough

lecturer opined and the students debated: about commas and colons. About
semi-colons and parentheses. About their own preferences and influences, well aside
from the rules.

A stylistically
distinct sentence appeared on the board.

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident
(picnic, lightning) when I was three…
called out, in recognition and appreciation: 

I love
what that particular parenthesis accomplishes in terms of voice and
characterization. Who but the narrator of Lolita
would compress and wall off, in an almost aggressively chilly aside, the
causes of a fatal accident?
If you’re a
writer, you love the fine details of language. You understand that every word –
every dot and dash, in fact—can make a difference.

But just
because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. I sure do.

I recently
finished an online graduate level class with a group of teachers in which
nearly every person said he or she needed to learn more grammar in order to
feel more confident in the classroom. Even the English teachers don’t know (or remember) all this

grammar and punctuation in isolation doesn’t help writers learn to write
better, the research categorically informs us. The skills have to be learned in
context. If a peer group, teacher or editor can point out a specific error you
are making, perhaps repeatedly, that is the perfect opportunity for
improvement. Better to tackle a few errors in context than add a complete book
about copyediting to your summer reading list.

Some of us
like to have fun—for example, experimenting with or without quotation marks, a la
Cormac McCarthy. (See Deb’s post on this very subject.) But we don’t want to
choose to vary from linguistic norms without purpose or to make repetitive errors
unintentionally. Right? (Learn the rules, then
choose whether to break them, in other words.)
One of the
top errors I repeatedly see from my own students and book coach clients is the
comma splice.

Comma splice. Definition from Purdue Owl: Comma splices are similar
to run-on sentences because they also incorrectly connect independent clauses.
A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are connected with only a
For example:
  • I didn’t like the movie, it was way too long.
  • She and Jerry are getting married in the fall, they didn’t want a
    summer wedding.
  • My favorite bands are all really loud, playing loud music is good
    for stress relief.
How to rewrite the first?

Break into two sentences

I didn’t like the movie.
It was way too long.

Use a semi-colon to connect independent clauses.

I didn’t like the movie;
it was way too long.

Connect the two ideas with a conjunction.

I didn’t like the movie
because it was too long.

Another error I see nearly as frequently is incorrect
semi-colon use, or—among people who do understand how to use semi-colons—simple
overuse and abuse. (I’m guilty as well. You can also see I have a fondness for
em dashes and, while we’re at it, here I am using parentheses, perhaps once too

I’m tempted
to cut and paste more corrections and examples, but this blogpost about
punctuation is more about process than rules. When I’m not sure if I’m using
punctuation correctly, or when an editor or peer reader flags something for me,
I head to Google. I do a search and look for trusted sources in the results. Or
I put the source—like Purdue Owl or Grammar Girl—in the searchbox. So for
example, I type: “Lie versus lay grammar girl.”

If I need
more examples to understand the rule, I search again.

Lots of
writing centers and educational sites have good handouts, like this one on
semi-colons, commas, and dashes. 

I’m not
always the fastest learner. I have to look up “lie versus lay” at least once a

Last week,
I was corrected on my use of “since” versus “because.” (Always more to learn!) 

blogpost could have been more concise, starting with “correct” choices instead
of “artistic” choices, including Nabokov’s parentheses. But my message for
you—and for my own perennial-student self—is that grammar*, punctuation*,
mechanics*, usage*, and all that English class stuff is really cool, first.
It’s also necessary, second.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, published in 11 languages, as well as The Detour and a forthcoming novel, Behave. She teaches for I2P, 49 Writers, and in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program. Her website

2 thoughts on “Andromeda: “Just” Punctuation”

  1. Good post. Nailing the punctuation always thrills me, which says more about me than I should reveal.

    Besides Purdue Owl, my favorite on-line source, I highly recommend the books of Karen Elizabeth Gordon. She is so fun to read and gives great examples.

    My most dog-eared book of hers is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire – The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. There's also The New Well-Tempered Sentence for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed.

    If you want to laugh while learning, Karen Elizabeth Gordon is your gal.

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