Monday, 2 February 2015

Pondering Punctuation

by Catherine Sercombe

That paragraph – the one I have just written – is pristine. Perfect. Pedantically precise even. Or so I thought. My computer program disagrees, emphasizing its point of view with a bright, green underline. I right-click the mouse. The computer’s angst shouts at me, declaring in no uncertain terms that my carefully chosen words are but a mere

FRAGMENT! (consider revising).

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating with the exclamation mark. It exists only in my imagination – something my computer lacks. I don’t blame the computer. It is locked into a particular set of parameters. It obeys the rules of grammar, or rather, the rules of its programming. It cannot interpret the context. It cannot see the big picture; the one where I, the author, have chosen to shorten the sentence to a fragment.


A computer’s expertise extends to punctuation, not creativity. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a die-hard fan of perfect punctuation. It is the body language of the written page. What's more, punctuation's power to prevent cannibalism is unrivaled. For example:

‘Shall we eat Grandma?’
‘Shall we eat, Grandma?’

Yep. Punctuation can be a life-saver.

My contention is that knowledge and intention based on the ‘big picture’ may also influence an author’s selection and placement of punctuation marks. A wild example of this is Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, with its minimalist take on punctuation and complete absence of quotation marks. Who cares! His word choices have such beauty and impact at times that his unconventional punctuation style seems moot. But I bet both his computer and his editor had a bit of a whinge about it.

Here are a few punctuation marks I placed in a document this morning:

Let's see my computer dispute that creation according to its programmed punctuation rules!

As I ponder the power of punctuation to clarify meaning or to create nuances that improve the way a story unfolds, I realize something: Our Creator punctuates our personal progress according to His intentional, creative plan.  And,

The divine Author of Life punctuates perfectly.

I, on the other hand, am inclined to operate at this level like my unimaginative computer; I get frustrated when God shortens my plans with a divine ‘full-stop’.

I can be impatient with His ‘semi-colons’ too. I don’t want to look or wait for additional information; I want to know it all now! As for colons… oh boy! When faced with a list of several things He wants to complete in me before we move forward, I'd rather skip a few in my eagerness to embrace an exciting new ‘sentence’. I want a green light so I can race ahead. I’m all too inclined to frustrate my Author by flagging a green underline and whinging, ‘fragment (consider revising)’.

But here’s the thing – we don’t get to do life over. No edits. No second or third or sixteenth drafts. Our life stories sit on the universal page, the book of life, exactly as we throw them down. Which could mean absolute disaster if they were ‘published’ as they stand. How could my life story possibly bring honour and glory to the Author of Life? Or reveal His ‘good news’story as is?

Praise God! Hindsight reveals He has been actively ‘editing’ my life's story all along, adding essential punctuation marks to slow me down, make me pause, emphasize the important things, stop me blundering on into danger, extend me, talk to me, shout a warning, cause me to question my actions and ideas, make me ponder... and His grace has coerced and confined my foolish detours into parentheses, rendering them irrelevant. What a relief!

My mother told the story of a letter she had written to my father when they were courting. At the end, she had added a postscript which contained a row of punctuation marks and the words, ‘I’m not sure where the punctuation marks should go, so I’ve put them all here. You can put them in the right places for me.’

I think I’ll take a leaf out of her book and trust God to punctuate my life according to His big picture. How about you?

Catherine Sercombe is a wife, mother of three, (they’ve grown up now), creative writing graduate and published author from Queensland, Australia. She manages an education business where she has the privilege of tutoring and encouraging students of all ages to meet their academic goals. Described in publication as a ‘writer whose work reflects an infectious love of language’, Catherine says, ‘From A to Z, surely the best writing begins and ends in God.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1-2). That’s an epidemic worth spreading.’   


  1. Wow Cathie, what a creative spin on punctuation. I think the use of punctuation is even more creative in poetry. It's good to know that there are some things the online editor can't do :) And I like your analogy about God punctuating our lives. Especially when I send him a question mark and He sends me a question mark back. It is great to know He's the perfect editor with the perfect story arc for each of us. Thanks for sharing. xx

    1. Yes, a few mentions in my hand-written notes of punctuation in poetry (not to mention white space and visual impact) didn't make the final cut - there is so much in that idea to be explored. I like the thought of adding "Perfect Story Arc Editor" to the list of designations for God.

  2. What a fun take on those challenging little marks, Cathie. Loved every bit of this post. And that letter your mother wrote...wonderful.

    How encouraging to realise in a very real sense God is 'editing' our lives. That is such an original take. Can I have your permission to quote you in a 5 min. radio program my husband and I co-present?

    1. Thanks Rita. My mother was a wise and wonderful woman in so many ways, not the least of which was her unfailing faith in God.

      As for permission to quote me - I would be absolutely delighted. Hope your listeners will be encouraged. Thank you.

  3. Really enjoyed this 'Punctuation Ponder', Cathie--thank you. And I loved your whimsical sense of humour as well as those excellent insights about God's part in our lives that permeated your writing. And what a fun way for your mother to end that letter too!

    1. "Whimsical sense of humour" - wow! Perhaps I got it from my mother. ;) Thanks, Jo-Anne. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Lovely post Cathie. Loved your sense of humour too. I too often think of God my Editor as He graciously edits my fumbling attempts at doing life. How thankful I am that His pen is always on track and corrects me as I go along - always making good out of all the scratch marks of my life's pen. Isn't it great that He sees the big picture? So of course we can trust Him all the way. Thanks Cathie. You put a grin on my face this morning. :)

  5. Glad to know it put a smile on your face, especially after your recent loss. Oh Anusha, if God had not been gracious enough to grant me an appreciation for the lighter, quirkier, funny side of life, I don't think I could have survived it at all.

  6. Fantastic post Cathie - love your humour and a great reminder to trust in God's timing. BTW we may laugh over the "Let's eat Grandma" mistake - but the lack of a single "s" forced a well-established Welsh family business into liquidation, caused 250 people to lose their jobs & cost the government 9 million pound in compensation! True story.

  7. What a beautiful analogy, Cathie. Love the insight and humour. :) And yes, those colons - oh, those colons! They can certainly get us champing at the bit. How true that we need to comprehend the single draft of life and let the master editor do His work to make that draft the very best adventure it can be. Great blog.