When I first started teaching grammar, it was to people who had English as a second language. They craved rules. They wanted me to tell them exactly when they were supposed to use a certain verb tense, and exactly how many exceptions there were to that rule — and could I please list the exceptions?
So I took the ‘rule’ approach to teaching punctuation. I had my three rules for when to use commas, and specific scenarios for when you put the full stop inside the quotation mark, and when you put the full stop outside.
And then in the last few weeks, real life has come along with a bang. I’ve been out of the classroom and into the world of editing, and I’ve realised that, while the rules work most of the time, sometimes they just don’t fit. What people have done in their documents doesn’t work according to the rule book, but the punctuation works perfectly well anyway.
I’ve looked up lots of different books on punctuation, and I’m amazed at how often the authors disagree over the finer points.
So now, humbler but wiser, I’m not throwing the rule book away, but I’m more open to creative punctuation. After all, the only reason punctuation’s there is to help get the message across more clearly.