Punctuation Without Tears by Dominic Selwood, book review: Puts simplicity and fun back into good writing

Linda Taylor
Greengrocers' apostrophes: Fruit and veg merchants aren't known for their grammar skills: Duncan C/Flickr

For anyone who has done battle with a traditional grammar guide, this book is deliciously heretical. Selwood begins by repunctuating Shakespeare, then invites you to do the same. His message is simple: forget the rules. Do whatever makes your writing clear. Be creative. Enjoy it. English teachers of a certain sort – mainly retired now – will not be amused.

The fact is that most people who try to follow the old rules have some degree of punctuation anxiety. This is probably because, for decades, the average British education taught us how to sabotage uniforms, to cope with inedible food, and to survive the trauma of sports day. But it did not demystify grammar. Most of us left school with fuzzy recollections of split infinitives, hanging participles, and other constructions that seemed as irrelevant as they were incomprehensible.

Selwood’s approach is the opposite. Get to grips with a few basics, he says, avoid the most painful howlers, and relax as you develop confidence and fluency. It’s a tantalising pitch. This little book is not for the grammar professional. There are no references to adjectival clauses or conjunctive adverbs. Anyone seeking that level of technical detail will need to look elsewhere.

Instead, Punctuation Without Tears keeps the tone light and practical. After a brief chapter on the purpose of punctuation, followed by another setting out three golden rules, the book devotes a short chapter to each punctuation mark, explaining how it should and should not be used. The examples it gives throughout are a funny and irreverent mix of cartoon princesses and sci-fi/fantasy characters wrestling with life, heavy weaponry and bad attitudes.

“Feeling homesick, Cthulhu snuggled his tentacles up under the duvet” or ‘”Armour-piercing, you say?” Rapunzel eyed the belt of bullets appreciatively.’

You get the picture. The examples are silly and memorable, set off with vivid, humorous illustrations.

The enthusiasm and sense of fun in the book is infectious, and it turns out to be effective. Selwood has tried hard to make it an enjoyable read, and it works.

The book’s subtitle is ‘’Punctuate confidently – in minutes’’ and the ultimate test is whether it succeeds in giving the reader a new-found confidence, quickly. The answer is that it should. It takes less than an hour to read from cover to cover, and it is full of sound, practical advice. Keep sentences short. Use commas as pauses. Spice it up with dashes. Avoid brackets. If you’re feeling bold, throw in a semicolon or two. Experiment. Watch out for comma splices. Don’t ever use the greengrocer’s apostrophe. The principles Selwood outlines are the core ingredients for sparkling modern writing.

At times, the book strays beyond punctuation. For instance, it roots for -ize rather than -ise. Far from being an Americanism, it explains, -ize is the traditional English spelling, which only lost ground to -ise in the mid-18th century when fashion-conscious snobs wanted to make English more like French. However, everyone from Chaucer to Churchill and Orwell to Tolkien used -ize, and Selwood urges us to feel free to continue the tradition.

Overall, this is a powerful little book: it is sure-footed, simple, feisty, funny, and profoundly helpful. Teenagers facing exams are going to thank anyone who gives it to them. Adults who want to brush up on the difference between a colon and semicolon are going to be equally as grateful. A book on punctuation is never going to be as popular as a cracking novel, but, after reading it, you might just have the confidence to write one.

‘Punctuation Without Tears: Punctuate Confidently – in Minutes!’ by Dominic Selwood is published by Corax in paperback, £7.99