Punctuation as Style

When we think about an author's style, and when we have talked about it in class, there are a number of elements that occupy the front of our understanding. Across their various works, authors tend to revisit genres, introduce characters that are tangentially similar, enter environments whose form leads to familiar experiences, events, and emotional engagement with the audience.

In class, we've distilled these into diction, syntax, imagery, mood, and tone, primarily. We can remember these words, know their definitions, and know their influence on a text without being consciously aware of how they affect other elements of a narrative. Syntax, for example, is the arrangement of words for effect; the choice to use long or short sentences, to break with English convention or to write grammatically, and to use variety or embrace monotony are all components of syntax. This we know.

Beneath this knowledge, without having considered it on its own, is the fact that syntax is dependent on (and thus inclusive of) punctuation. I had never considered this myself until I read an excellent post on Medium by Adam J. Calhoun about how the use of punctuation differs from one author to another. It is a brilliant bit of data-mining and it compares how a variety of popular authors use punctuation.

For example, the header image of this post is a comparison of the use of punctuation in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (on the left) and William Faulkner's Absolom, Absolum! (on the right). You may never have read the work of either of these authors (although McCarthy's The Road is in my class library), but you can see at a glance how different they are. McCarthy uses very few commas by comparison and absolutely no parenthesis or dashes, relying primarily on end punctuation like periods and question marks.

Calhoon breaks down the use of these items graphically as well in the images below.

The use of punctuation by these two authors tells us a great deal of information if we make a few logical inferences. We can infer by the limited use of commas and the heavy use of periods that the sentences in McCarthy's work tend to be shorter. The lack of quotation marks tells us that his characters either speak infrequently or that he does not punctuate his dialogue in the traditional fashion. The language is formal, as evidenced by the lack of apostrophes, which are often used in contractions. The lack of colons and semicolons suggests that the clauses used are not linked with complexity, which likely means sentences that are simple, direct, straightforward. Taken as a whole, it seems that McCarthy writes in a style that is suited to protagonists who do not see the world as particularly complex and they interact with their world without hesitating to consider the implications of their actions. 

Now, I have not read Blood Meridian (although in the interest of full disclosure, I have read The Road), but I would be willing to wager a pizza that my inferences are representative of that novel, at least in part. A similar analysis could be completed based on Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, but ideally you are already considering this yourself. Why, I wonder, do commas so greatly outnumber periods? Why are there so many colons and semicolons? What role does dialogue play in the story?

Calhoun has analysis for a number of works in his post, and he provides multiple means of comparing and visualizing them. My favorite is the use of heat maps. In these, Calhoun creates an image composed of colors that represent the use of punctuation marks in their original text. End marks (periods, question marks, and exclamation marks) are in red. Intermediary punctuation (like semicolons and colons) are in green. Commas and quotation marks are green. 

The works of Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet are below. 

This analysis of punctuation has a bunch of other examples, comparisons, and data - I especially like the words per punctuation mark. I would encourage you to check out this excellent post.

And next time you read, consider carefully the humble punctuation mark and its brethren.

(Originally Published Feb 29, 2016)