The Why Behind the What

A climbing magazine asked its readers, “What’s the most important tip you would give a beginner?” The answers were solid, covering rope work, emergency preparedness, attitude, and equipment. But my answer went in a different direction. The most important tip I’d give virtually anyone on virtually any subject is: ask why. Memorizing a rote set of rules is never enough. We need to understand the reasons behind the rules.

I once stood on the ground listening to an inexperienced climber worry her way through setting up a rappel. Now, rappelling is one of the most dangerous things a climber will do, so it’s right to be nervous about it, and there are correspondingly dozens of safety tips and maxims a new climber will be inundated with, all of which this climber must have heard and all of which she was trying to employ. But she was only thirty feet above clearly visible ground with a group of friends standing guard below . Most of what she did to keep herself safe was nonsensical. It only added to the time she spent hanging in the air and to her general sense of confusion and discomfort, thus making her, if anything, less safe. It was clear she only knew WHAT, not WHY.

The climber eventually made it down, so you can stop worrying about her as we transition from climbing to writing. When I was a kid back in fifth grade, we did a unit on the poet E. E. Cummings who writes his poems without any punctuation or capitalization. Since my English assignments would’ve been marked down to zero for such an egregious failure to obey the rules, I was righteously indignant. Why was he allowed to do what I wasn’t? “You have to know the rules before you can break them,” my teacher told me, and it turns out that’s a rule that applies universally. To writing, to climbing, to life.

I’m not suggesting you eliminate all punctuation from your writing, but I am recommending that when you learn the rules of punctuation, you learn the WHY not just the WHAT. Punctuation is to writing what notation is to music. If a musical score consisted solely of a procession of notes, no one would know how to play it. GCBCEDCAGGCBCEDG. That’s Amazing Grace, FYI. Doesn’t have the same feel, does it?

If I spewed my words out in an unpunctuated string, the result would be similar. You could get a sense of what I meant, but you certainly wouldn’t be hearing it the way I heard it in my own mind. Just as musical notation tells us how to join notes together to create the exact melody the songwriter intended, punctuation tells the reader how to read a sentence to get the exact rhythm and meaning the author intended. Therefore, the most important requirement for punctuation isn’t that it meet an exact set of rules but that it produce the exact result the author was aiming for.

We have a common understanding of what the various punctuation marks mean, which can be largely expressed in terms of pauses. A period denotes a longer pause than a comma. A semi-colon falls between the two. When we speak, we naturally add these micro-pauses, thus allowing our listeners to follow our train of thought. When we write, we have to add the pauses manually to mimic natural speech patterns. This applies both to dialogue and to narration, because narration is story-telling.

Let’s consider the rule that names and titles are set off by a comma when they’re being used as a form of address. Are you familiar with this rule? It’s applied like this:

David, do you want to come with me?  vs.  David will come with me.

How many donuts are you going to eat, Sara?  vs.  When was the last time you saw Sara?

Sir, I don’t think you’re listening to me.  vs.  Sir is the title most Doms prefer.

If you say those sentences out loud, you’ll hear the slight pause that sets the name/title off from the rest of the sentence when it’s being used as a form of address. The pause tells the listener the name isn’t part of the sentence itself, and we use a comma to represent it.

For the most part, punctuation is a set of guidelines, not a set of hard and fast rules, but before you  decide to break a rule, you need to under why it exists in the first place. I would never break the one about setting off forms of address with a comma, for instance, because without the comma, those sentences become very difficult to parse.

David do you want to come with me?

How many donuts are you going to eat Sara?

Sir I don’t think you’re listening to me.

Hard to read those sentences correctly, isn’t it? I’m particularly concerned that someone is about to eat Sara. So the comma goes in not to prove to an editor that we memorized a rule but to help the reader understand what we’re saying.