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Monday, August 11, 2014

Punctuation as a form of lay-out and document design

A discussion of layout and design of a document could easily lead to a consideration of punctuation marks as tools of page and lay-out design.  
Like arrows and bullets, punctuation marks are simply visual cues that help a reader to know when to pay attention to a grouping of words that fit together to form an idea.  

Decoding what words mean is what reading is, and punctuation marks help a reader to see how words and groups of words unite to represent the intended meaning by the writer of them.
Mathematicians perform the same service for people who translate numerical sentences and equations by relying upon the visual cues of < >  + - = and [ ].  For some reason the symbols used with numbers seem to make an easier sense to us than the symbols  : ; !, . ? and “ “ do with words, but it is really the same concept. 

Punctuation marks proclaim and forecast relationships on the page for the reader.   These little shapes and marks group words for the reader because decoding words is harder to do than the word reading implies.  Deciphering the intended message of long blocks of words can be as difficult for some people as it is for readers who are trying to translate a language that is not native to them.
If reading were as easy as breathing then people would not have to work so hard to become better writers, but writing for clarity’s sake and with respect for the reader’s need to understand the message intended requires commitment, humility, perseverance and the ability to try and understand the process of punctuation until you find a way to connect with how you as the writer see the patterns of your own words on the page or screen and use them efficiently in such a way as to help the largest number of readers understand how you group words and use them in complete thoughts like sentences, which is the function that a period performs.

 It is quite possible that you can come to the conclusion that after a lifetime of believing you would never understand the use of the comma that you rather easily can—you just need to figure out the way your brain sees the words on the page. For punctuation of sentences is not really about the vast numbers of ways that one can write all kinds of sentences and learn and remember all of the rules for and the ever-changing set of exceptions to the rule of comma usage; it is about learning your own patterns and know how to punctuate the sentence patterns and word groupings that you use as your bunch of standard tools.

We all have them.  And we can all learn to punctuate ourselves.  When we figure out that we have a chronic problem with a certain kind of punctuation, then our free will allows us to simply give up and say, “Using a word that ends in  ‘ing’ at the beginning of a sentence leads to a punctuation dilemma I just can’t solve. So,  I will simply stop beginning sentences with words that begin with ‘ing’ until I do understand.”  It is always your choice how you plot out a sentence or a paragraph, and you are always free to keep using a comma before a conjunction even though the world now says, uh-uh, we don’t do that anymore.

Because people have so many ways of seeing patterns and because the language that usually teaches punctuation does not accommodate those differences very well, here is an effort meant to explain punctuation in terms of stances associated with different ways that people make sense out of the design or layout of documents and the symbols they contain.

White Space equals silence.  It is not scary.  You know those old adages about looking at a blank page and having writer’s block.  Let go of that idea.  White space is your friend.  White space is your reader’s friend, too, for the presence of it signals the reader where to rest, take a breath, stand easy.
Consider the indention of paragraphs.  While much writing now is not indented,  when a block of prose lacks that first 5 empty character-sized spaces called an indention and in terms of document design that small area of white space signals that a new idea in a a new paragraph begins here. When the indention is abandoned, you should certainly see two lines of white space that separate the two paragraphs instead.  Both mean the same thing:  new idea starts here.  The use of white space is one of the most powerful tools of lay out and design.  Traditionally, two white spaces occur after a period, which allows the reader’s eyes to recognize that something more final has happened there, but that little mechanical choice is fading away as word processing cleans up "extra white spaces" that are no longer relevant in many ways.  But some are.

White space is a document creator’s and reader’s friend because it helps to communicate and to read.  Indentions, tabs and lines of space between paragraphs are important in easing the reader’s eyes along.  The same is true of the right side of the margin.  Called ragged right margin, when the writer does not turn on the function called justified right margin which results in blocking the prose, the reader will find that the ragged right margin where the lines are uneven is simply easier to read than blocked prose, which is associated with accountants and lawyers.

So, to begin in thinking about how to lay out a document, just consider the use of white space.  When you see the page do not panic or think ‘I have to fill that up.’  You don’t.  You really plant symbols on the page that will become ideas for the reader and lead the reader’s eyes along, which is a major function of document design.

The Period—the most basic punctuation mark at work is the period.  One uses it to show that a complete idea has been expressed, but that is not the only symbol at work to do that.  The capital letter of the first word of the sentence also helps with this design function.   One looks for the complete idea that is expressed between that word that begins the idea and is capitalized and the last word that finishes the thought.  Then, the period is applied and two taps of the space bar add the two white spaces that help the reader to recognize the finality of that expressed completed thought.  Or, not. 

The Comma—This punctuation mark has a job description that is changing.  One no longer uses it before a conjunction—those words that connect two complete ideas although I still do from time to time. I am nostalgic that way.  One no longer uses it before the last item in a series although I still do that from time to time too.  Old habits die hard.   But in terms of adhering to a fast rule for comma usage,  there are two basic ways that a comma needs to be in a sentence and that is after a long clause that sets up the subject of the sentence and before a small clause that could be left out of the sentence and the central meaning of that sentence would hold true.  The name for that first set of words is an introductory clause and the name for the last clause is a non-restrictive clause. 

Do you see how those two names don’t really help you to understand the function of a comma?  

 A shorthand way of seeing each is that when there is a big string of words at the beginning of the sentence add a comma before the noun that functions as the subject of that sentence.  If there is a phrase at the end that you could chop off, add a comma before that. 

Look at the meanings of each set of words and judge for yourself.  Frequently that phrase will begin with the word “which” but not necessarily.  You almost never place a comma before the other word that signals a clause.  That word is that.

So, look at your own sentences.  Is there a string of words before the noun which help to introduce the noun in the sentence?  Add a comma right before the noun or after the string of words—however you see them.

Is there a tag clause at the end that you could chop off?  Place a comma before that phrase begins.
Learning those two hints will help you use a comma more efficiently and with confidence.
There are other considerations for using the comma, but the truth is that they fit inside a variety of sentence patterns, which seems to make the comma a punctuation mark with so many exceptions to the rule of it that one can never learn them.  That feels true.  But the more important truth is that each writer uses a fairly limited set of sentence patterns, and once you learn your own sentence patterns, it becomes pretty simple to use the comma correctly.

There are the 7 basic sentence patterns.  Find out what they are.  There are many ways that many different  English-teaching folks try to explain them, and it all sounds pretty complicated.     Instead, look at your own work and identify which of these patterns you most often use.   You probably rely upon three (or four) of these patterns.   Match your patterns to the ones you learn about, and then nod knowingly because now you know your patterns.  Make sure you know how to punctuate your own sentence patterns and then add a new sentence pattern the same way you add a new dance step to your repertoire.

Quotation Marks—They have two primary functions.  To set off the words someone has said or to set off an excerpt that you are taking from another source.  Other than that, the most overused and ill-considered use of quotation marks is when people use them to set off a word or term  so that a reader will pay special attention to it.  Most of the time people place quotation marks around a word or term because they cannot think of the word they want or need to use and so highlight their word choice this way to flag the reader’s attention.   Quotation marks used that way mean something like this:  I sort of mean this word or something like it.  It is left to the reader to figure out what the writer is trying to say and that is unwise.

It is unwise to expect the reader to try and read your mind.  It is unwise because even the most carefully selected words have denotative values and connotative values.  When a reader sees those quote marks and tries to substitute a word of some kind to mean what they are thinking you are trying to say there is no telling what kind of meaning-rich word he/she will use.

If you cannot think of the word you mean, keep thinking until you know and then use the best word.  Use those quotation marks as sparingly to set off special words as you do the exclamation point, which has only one function:  to proclaim excitement.

That’s it.  How excited can one person be?   When an exclamation point is used many times and sometimes repeated four or five times at the end of a sentence to indicated extreme excitement, you can bet that the exclamation point is being used there in the same way that the quotation marks can be misused:  to indicate a meaning that is not clearly written for the reader and not truly known to the writer either.

Ah, well.  C’est la vie.

The apostrophe used in the above common French phrase is simply the way you spell that phrase, but the apostrophe also basically has two main functions:  it helps to spell contractions correctly (two words mashed together) and stands in for the missing letters of the word that has been compressed, such as “isn’t” and “haven’t” and “would’ve”.

But most often the apostrophe is used wrongly in relationship to the tiny word Its and it’s.  It’s is the contraction for It is but the apostrophe also is used with words to show that what follows belongs with the word that has the apostrophe.  That’s called showing possession.  When something belongs to the word that is not a contraction and is indicating a relationship that apostrophe is used EXCEPT when the word is ITS because that’s the exception.  Just learn it.  Then, use it correctly.

Punctuation, like layout design, can be as big a subject as you want to make it, or you can tailor the discussion to fit the size that you use and navigate daily.  Start thinking of punctuation marks as symbols that graphic designers could use to lead the reader’s eyes along, and you may be able to use them more comfortably and efficiently than you ever have before.


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