7 Pioneers of Punctuation

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on January 25, 2011

There’s nothing quite like omitting a few commas to really let loose on the page.

After centuries of formalist writing, with their serial commas and their Strunk and White and their “well, the Bible did it, so……” these seven authors have turned the world of convention and capitalization on its head.

1. John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Excerpt A Prayer for Owen Meany

I’ve all but given up hope on John Irving these days, but that doesn’t mean he won’t always remain on my list of Favorite Authors for APFOM. The choice to keep every word Owen says in ALL CAPS is character building at its finest. Where other writers choose to keep their descriptions in one concise paragraph and hope we remember, Irving gives pounds Owen’s screaming voice home ’til the end.

2. James Joyce, Ulysses

Joyce’s eighteenth episode, “Penelope“, contains eight of the most famous run-on sentences in the English language. Molly Bloom recounts her life and love for Leopold in a string of massive “sentences” that include only two instances of punctuation – periods after the fourth and eighth – which serve as an iconic example of the inner monologue.

3. e. e. cummings

Excerpt from e e cummings

An artist as much as he was a poet, cummings understood the power of presentation in his poems. He combined typographical masterpieces and punctuation innovations with impressionistic syntax: the kind of stuff that you would hang on your wall just as soon as you’d read it aloud.

4. Lord Timothy Dexter, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones

Lord T.D. was an utter and complete 18th century loon, and is one of my favorite pseudo-historical figures of all time. Uneducated yet hugely rich, he wrote a book about himself that was around 9,000 words with no punctuation and capital letters sprinkled at random throughout. After some complaints over the readability, he included an appendix with 13 lines of various punctuation marks, suggesting his readers “peper and solt it as they plese.”

5. José Saramago, The Elephant’s Journey

Excerpt from Elephants Journey by Saramago

Sentences a full page long? Minimal periods, in favor of commas? Absence of quotation marks? Lack of proper nouns?

There is a reason this guy is a Nobel Laureate.

6. William Faulkner, The Sounds and the Fury

Faulkner uses punctuation (or lack thereof) to help perpetuate Jason’s spiral into depression and his deteriorating state of mind as Part 2 of TSATF unfolds.

7. Jennifer L. Holm, Our Only May Amelia

Excerpt Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm

Children’s book authors usually get left out of roundups of literary pioneers, and for that reason alone I am replacing Cormac McCarthy with Jennifer Holm. Her quirky use of random capitalization was deemed “distracting” by some reviewers, but I like it. I think it is neat, kid thing to do and gives little May Amelia an added spunk as she deems which words she wants proper noun’d.

Who are your favorite grammar guerrillas? Comment below.

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