Here’s an exercise for you.
Take the following passage (from Jerome K. Jerome’s book, Three Men in a Boat, which I am reading at the moment) and see if you can focus only on the punctuation, which has been interfered with here so that there are at least three errors:
It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.
You cannot give me too much work to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.
And I am careful of my work, too. Why some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take a great pride in my work I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.
But, though I crave for work I still like to be fair. I do not ask for more than my proper share.
It’s quite hard to focus purely on the punctuation the first time round, isn’t it? Your mind probably demanded to know something about the meaning of the passage before you could disconnect a little from that and just look at punctuation. And that makes sense, of course, because the punctuation is intimately connected with the meaning. On a first read through a piece of prose, most people’s minds are looking for meaning, as we have covered earlier, which often leads to them skipping over mechanical errors in the work. Once you have read a piece of prose, though, and understand its significance, it becomes slightly easier to disassociate from that meaning and look for mechanical discrepancies.
Only slightly, though. Being human as we are, we are still hooked on meaning and permit it to ‘blur’ our reading eyes. Errors can still be missed. And because we have read it before, a little voice in our heads might be telling us ‘This bit’s OK - you read it yesterday and didn’t spot anything’. Picking out a particular mechanical aspect to focus on, though, like punctuation, means that we stand more chance of detecting mistakes without getting ‘bogged down’ into the meaning again.
Here’s the passage again, with its original punctuation restored:
You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.
And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.
But, though I crave for work, I still like to be fair. I do not ask for more than my proper share.
Now that you understand what the passage is about, you can probably re-read the first one and more easily look just at the full stops, commas and so on while only lightly skimming into the meaning in order to see what works and what doesn’t.
Proofreading just punctuation is another way of making sure that a work is fully correct before going to print. It’s not completely foolproof - nothing is - and it does demand that you know something of the meaning of what is being written in order for you to decide what punctuation best fits where, but it is an approach that has some workability.
By the way, I have no doubt there will be disagreements amongst you about the punctuation in the above passage. Feel free to write to me. I am using the standard early 20th century edition of the book and that’s the punctuation which came with it. One of the joys of this game is that punctuation itself does not follow rules set in diamond - there is room for flexibility, because punctuation, like everything to do with language, exists as a set of tools to be used by the writer to achieve particular effects. Punctuate the above passage differently and you create different effects.
Tools not rules, remember.