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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Mastering punctuation is an art form

February 19, 2014|By Joe Puglia

Sister Dolores was a most persnickety teacher. I had her in the eighth grade at St. Frances of Rome. I kid you not; she was the reincarnation of Baron Von Steuben. If you’ve been to Valley Forge, you’d understand the metaphor. The baron was the consummate drillmaster who whipped Washington’s army into shape.

Sister Dolores was a drill sergeant! She hammered the elements of punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure into her students and would return our essays in a sea of red. I’m not sure I got it. Since I’m from the Bronx I tend to punctuate like I speak and to add insult to injury, I’m Italian.

However, sister taught a valuable lesson. Effective writing goes beyond story. It’s found in the systematic arrangement of words segmented by punctuation. English is full of ambiguity. Its written and spoken form is often convoluted, vague and poetic. Clarity and meaning are frequent causalities of its expression. Punctuation, grammar and sentence structure are cornerstones giving meaning to the complexities of the English language. Punctuation and grammar are not just a collection of rules and constraints. They’re an art.

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As a writer I’m fortunate to have a consummate resource advising me on the nuances of writing and literature. Susan Moore, my go-to gal, is an English teacher at La Cañada High School. I am impressed not only by her command of writing and expression but also by her mastery of literature. Whether she is preparing dinner or grading papers, she is available at the drop of a dime to answer the plethora of questions I have relative to writing. Typically a phone conversation would go something like this.

“Sue! Joe! Is possessive case it's or its?” I’d ask.

“Its,” she’d respond.

“Thanks, Sue!”

She’s often my Cliff Notes relative to literature I’ve read more than 40 years ago. I appreciate her willingness to help a struggling writer. Since I advise students on the process of writing, I wanted to do a piece on punctuation. Naturally I’d seek the Oracle Sue Moore for perspective. However our conversation took a different road whereby punctuation became an incidental topic.

She said, “I’m a teacher because I love to see the impact of the written word. Expressing ideas, thoughts, finding clarity, and leaving the reader breathless is the magic of words.”

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