Monday, November 7, 2011


Little things make a difference.

Bullets. Traces of poison. DNA. Punctuation. We would do best not to ignore them. I’ve decided to muse about a few little things today. Punctuation appears to be newsworthy this week. Who knew?

The New York Times style section a few months ago had a feature on the exclamation point. That’s right! Apparently email, in which everything is fairly flat and emotionless, is a breeding ground for exclamation points. Like mosquitoes in standing water, exclamation points are exploding in this new environment. People like me who can write a book without a single exclamation point (and rightly so), can’t write a three-sentence email without seven. Otherwise normal people, ahem, are using them to convey support, enthusiasm, distress or an emerging hissy fit, any of which would take more words and more thought than an email message usually gets!!!!

Then there’s the comma, long a thorn in the side of the writer and the editor. Apparently, University of Oxford in a pre-emptive strike, has given the boot to the serial comma. Out in the blogosphere, there was rejoicing in some quarters and gnashing of teeth in others. Supporters claim that the serial comma is important to eliminate ambiguity. The common example is: I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God. Much more clear if you write I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God. Ponder that.

As far as I can tell, wars have been fought over less.

This set me to thinking about other punctuation and its importance. I am hoping that someone will come up with a witty and pointed article on the ironic quotation mark, its uses and abuses. Finger quotes as they are known in conversation, can undermine the literal meaning of a phrase. For example: I just love you. As opposed to: I just ‘love’ you. Or even I ‘just’ love you. Consider: She’s such a good writer. Compare it to: She’s ‘such’ a good writer. Hmm. In our family, finger quotes are used the way some people might use, say, crossbows.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves?

My point, and I do have one, is that even tiny bits of punctuation can contain pitfalls. How else did Lynn Truss manage to craft a bestselling book on punctuation in

As I worked my way through a draft of a new book, I was filled with that writerly panic that often assails me when I think of the whole manuscript. If there are such pitfalls in commas and other punctuation, how can any of us hope to manage the 80,000 words or so that it takes for a contemporary mystery? It’s quite paralyzing when you think about it. Joan Boswell in a past post asked if creating a book shouldn’t be fun and challenging. I’d say yes. And it can also require courage just to get it out there, knowing that there will be pitfalls and errors and reviewers and critics ready to pounce. We writers are nothing if not a gutsy lot.

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.


  1. Interesting post! (Sorry, couldn't resist the exclamation mark.)

    I, too, have agonized over the Oxford Comma. Years ago when I was an editor our house style excluded it from series and I kept that in my personal writing style for many years, but recently I've been swayed by the argument that it can help avoid ambiguity and I've started using it again. Feels weird, though.

    As I understand it, the University of Oxford has abandoned it for their PR writing but it remains in their authoritative style guide. Can't anyone make up their mind about this???!!! (Sorry, more rogue punctuation marks.)

  2. Wonderful post, Mary Jane! (As opposed to: Wonderful post, Mary Jane.) Somehow, the exclamation mark just makes for a friendlier and less profound remark.
    Love this column.