Under The Sun

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Punctuation matters.

(That's a declarative sentence, not a headline.)

Here's why it matters. The second "or" does delineate the intent, as Mike explains. But if that "or" were preceded by a semicolon instead of a comma, the meaning would be unmistakable--even without clause-identifiers.

There are two differences between adequate writing and excellent writing. The one more commonly noted is the use of vocabulary to furnish nuance. The one less commonly noted is the use of punctuation (including filler words and the arrangement of clauses) to furnish flow. A well-punctuated sentence flows with a single, unmistakable current: it can be read in only one way.

That is why, as Mark Twain said, the test of good writing is "the reading aloud". (And not, in general, by the author, who already knows what it says.) A sentence that impels a reader to hesitate, to backtrack, to think twice, almost certainly should be revised. Sometimes such complexity is inevitable, but far more often it is merely incompetent.

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