Lesson #223: Avoiding confusion in your writing: 3 Punctuation Tips

📗 “I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”

“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (1871)

Have you ever read (or watched a movie on) Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass?

If you remember the story, Alice finds herself twice in a world where nearly everything is upside down or contrary to what she is used to in our ‘normal’ world. The creatures she meets often say things that don’t make any sense and can leave us either entertained or perplexed! 😄 / 🤔

Carroll often does this by placing certain things together (e.g., becoming a queen and going through an examination) that normally would be separate, and vice versa. He does this by positioning two different ideas in the same sentence, paragraph, or train of thought – and as readers, we search for a logic behind why he does this (and more often than not, we don’t find any)!

It reminds me of a conversation I had a few days ago with my mother. We were talking about the importance of punctuation in what we write; how by simply changing even a comma we are able to group certain words together differently and so change the whole meaning of a sentence. For example:

✒️ 1. Tom said, ‘Joe is the best footballer on the team.’

versus

✒️ 2. ‘Tom’, said Joe, ‘is the best footballer on the team.’

In the first sentence, Tom is speaking and Joe is the subject of the conversation. On the other hand, in the second sentence we see that Joe is the speaker and Tom is the subject of his conversation.

In today’s Lesson I am going to show some examples of how Lewis Carroll, the author of Through the Looking-Glass, wrote sentences that would have a completely different meaning if the punctuation were changed or added. Here is one example:

📗 … For Tweedledum said Tweedledee        

Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

And in a story where so many characters say things are topsy-turvy (upside down, completely confusing, and not making any sense), this could end up becoming very confusing indeed!

But don’t worry – I will be providing plenty of explanations below so that you can be sure you don’t fall into common punctuation mistakes in your own written English.

📝 #1 THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMAS

📗 … just now, as I said, she [Dinah the cat] was hard at work on the white kitten, which was lying quite still and trying to purr— no doubt feeling that it was all meant for its good. …

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

In the sentence above we can see how the commas in the right position make all the difference as we try to identify who is the speaker in the sentence. We know that ‘she’ (in this case, Alice’s cat Dinah) was the one who was ‘hard at work on the white kitten’ (cleaning the kitten); we also understand that ‘as I said’ is simply a remark coming from the narrator (or speaker).

But if the punctuation were changed to this sample sentence below, who would be cleaning the kitten, and who would be the speaker?

✒️ … just now as I, said she, was hard at work on the white kitten …

Can you see how ‘she’ becomes a pronoun describing the speaker, while ‘I’ is a reflexive pronoun that describes the person doing the main activity in the sentence (‘I … was hard at work on the white kitten …’)

✍️ What a difference a comma or two in the right place can make!

If you are concerned that you might just make a mistake in how and where you use commas in a sentence, just keep reading – I have you covered! There is another punctuation mark that always clarifies who the speaker in a sentence is, and what is being said by that speaker.

📝 #2 THE IMPORTANCE OF QUOTATION MARKS

📗 “O Tiger-lily,” said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, “I wish you could talk!”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

With this sentence we can see at a glance the difference between the speaker and the person (in this case a flower) who is being spoken to – all thanks to quotation marks.

Imagine the beginning of this same sentence without any quotation marks or commas. It would look something like this:

✒️ O Tiger-lily said Alice addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind …

We would wonder whether it were a case of

✒️ “O,” Tiger-lily said, “Alice,” addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind … (where Tiger-Lily is the speaker, and Alice is the one spoken to)

OR of the sentence that Lewis Carroll wrote (above), where Alice is the speaker and Tiger-Lily is the one spoken to.

🇬🇧 🇺🇲 NOTE: Depending on where you are living, you may prefer to use UK or US quotation marks in your writing. You can find my Lesson here in 2 parts, where I looked at some of the differences between the two styles of quotation marks.

📝 #3 THE IMPORTANCE OF FULL-STOPS/PERIODS AND PARAGRAPH SPACING

Another useful tip to be aware of when you are describing a dialogue is to pay attention to where you end a sentence. Ask yourself: does it need a full-stop/period? Does it need proper paragraph spacing to show it is separate from what follows?

Consider this quotation from Through the Looking-Glass:

📗 “It always happens,” said the Gnat.

After this, Alice was silent for a minute or two, pondering.

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

👉 Notice Carroll’s placement of the full-stops/periods and a paragraph break between the different lines (keeping what the Gnat said distinct and apart from what Alice did). As a proofreader, this is one of the most common mistakes that I come across: people writing in English often forget to close off a sentence and / or to introduce paragraph breaks, especially when reporting a dialogue. ⚠️

❌ Many people make these kinds of mistakes because they become used to texting or messaging quickly and don’t trouble themselves to insert the correct punctuation marks. 📱 📱 📱

While this is understandable in the world of text messaging ‘language’, just be careful that you do not forget these important rules of punctuation when writing anything formal such as an email, letter, or any professional document (e.g. academic essay, job application, etc).

Remember: some of the confusion in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass is meant to be funny (and it is – you may enjoy this classic with the help of a good YouTube narration).

However, as an English language student, it would be far from funny to create confusion and annoy anyone who reads whatever you write. 😟

Keep the guidelines above in mind – your readers will be grateful for the clarity of your writing! 🖋️