Hands up all the punctuation police out there! You know who you are. You’re the ones who spot a dropped apostrophe a mile off and who can effortlessly discern when an en dash should really be an em dash, or when a hyphen is totally out of place. If you’re anything like me, there’s also a high chance you want your children to grow up knowing precisely where to put their apostrophes, colons and commas as well (not to mention using restraint when adding in exclamation marks).
The thing is, while many punctuation marks do need to comply with certain rules (think of that dreaded apostrophe) more often than we might realise, choosing which punctuation to use and when to use them, is actually a creative decision. Even something as simple as the full stop has a powerful impact on the flow of a text, and consequently, how it makes the reader feel. In the English language education of the day, we readily forget that punctuation choices are as much an art form as they are a science. I love this quote from Noah Lukeman in his book, The Art of Punctuation:
"There is an underlying rhythm to all text. Sentences crash and fall like waves of the sea, and work unconsciously on the reader. Punctuation is the music of language. As a conductor can influence the experience of a song by manipulating its rhythm, so can punctuation influence the reading experience, bring out the best (or worst) in a text. By controlling the speed of a text, punctuation dictates how it should be read.”
Punctuation is a tool in the writer’s creative toolkit in exactly the same way that a colour palette is in the hands of a painter. There are of course instances when the writer can clearly make a punctuation mistake, but more often, their choices are really about style, mood and impact.
So, does this have anything to do with copywork? Yes, of course it does.
You can learn all the punctuation rules perfectly, yet still fail to use them well—to unleash them as creative engineers giving shape, form and mood to your writing. Now I’m not promising that if your child does copywork every day they will automatically imbibe the sixth sense of the punctuation police, but overtime there is a good chance they will learn when a comma feels right and when it feels wrong, or when a sentence is just too long and is begging for a full stop or a semicolon.
Imitation has always been one of the most powerful ways that all artists learn their craft. They copy those whose skill level is above them. This does not reduce their own creativity, for the more skilful an artist is, the more options they have to express their own ideas as they develop. Whenever a musician plays a musical score composed by greats such as Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin, they are engaging in musical copywork, and over time this process forges their own sense of musical artistry.
The same principle is true of mastering the art of using language. When we copy the master poets, speech writers, playwrights and novelists, we develop an intuitive appreciation for good writing and the many different ways that punctuation can change the meaning, rhythm and mood of a text. It’s 10 minutes a day well spent in the pursuit of helping our children become writers who can communicate their ideas well.