Ten Punctuation Dos and Don'ts to Make Sure Your Editor Loves You
In my experience, if there is one facet of writing that almost every writer struggles with, it would be punctuation. Somewhere along the way, the internet has us that it is okay to overuse or improperly use a wide variety of the punctuation marks, ranging from the ever popular.....................to the omnipresent ?!??!?!. On the other end of the spectrum are those writers who realize they don't know how to use anything but the most basic marks, and therefore shy away from anything but a period or question mark, and the occasional comma.
Any time I run across a writer who falls somewhere comfortably in the middle of those two extremes, I can't help but smile. They may not use their punctuation correctly 100% of the time, but they come close. These writers are rare, precious gems. Nothing makes me smile more than a properly formatted ellipsis placed in an appropriate position. A parenthetical expression can leave me giddy. Commas placed where they belong and omitted where they don't belong are like chocolate for my soul. And finding a semi-colon that I don't have to immediately replace with a comma? Heaven on earth.
With that in mind, I present to you a list of ten dos and don'ts for punctuation so that you can be one of those gems I mentioned.
- Do buy a personal copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style (or utilize the online version), and study Section II and Section III, in particular. Yes, it is true that much of this deals with grammar and not with punctuation. However, grammar and punctuation are two beasts that go hand-in-hand. Strunk and White provide clear, easy to remember, easy to execute instructions for most grammatical situations. Learn them. Love them. Use them.
- Do not create unnecessary ambiguity by leaving out necessary hyphens. Take, for example, the following versions of the same sentence: Mark turned down the one way street. Mark turned down the one-way street. Which of these leaves fewer things for the reader to misinterpret? Yes, most people will know that the "one way street" is really a one-way street and not the only way street around (whatever a "way" street might be). If you include the hyphen, thereby combining the two words into a singular meaning, you avoid the potential for ambiguity.
- Do refresh your memory on dependent and independent clauses, as well as how they should be punctuated within a sentence. The best explanation I've ever heard on figuring out how to deal with this was delivered by the Lady Scribes' own Baroness Blithe, Catherine Gayle. Head here for her methodology. (But be forewarned--she does not mean to offend, only to enlighten, and, perhaps, to cause amusement.)
- Do not use action tags as speech tags or use speech tags as action tags. They are notinterchangeable. They require different punctuation. Speech tags should be used as part of the same sentence as a piece of dialogue. Action tags can only be included in the same sentence as dialogue if tacked on to a speech tag, or if it interrupts a sentence of dialogue and is set apart by em dashes. Also, contrary to popular belief, certain words do not work as speech tags. Laughing produces laughter, not speech. Snorting produces a snort, not a line of dialogue. Giggling produces a peal of giggles, not a complete sentence. Be sure the verb you choose as a speech tag is one capable of doing the job at hand.
- Do save your exclamation points for moments of impact. I mean it! Nothing is more jarring than trying to read a manuscript where every line is littered with exclamation marks! The entire world of characters shouts things constantly! It leaves me with headaches! It makes me want to scream!
- "Do not use punctuation to accomplish the same task as your words or vice versa!" Mindy loudly exclaimed. Do you see what I did there? *wink, wink* *nudge, nudge* If you'll notice, there are a lot of redundancies up there. First off, an exclamation would generally be loud, so to say someone loudly exclaimed something is overkill. Cut the loudly out. Then take it further than that. An exclamation point informs the reader (unless overused, as mentioned above) that whatever is being said is being exclaimed. To use both the punctuation and then tell us that the speaker is exclaiming as well is just too much. It shows that the writer doesn't trust their ability to properly utilize the tools given to them. Use one or the other, but never both.
- Do differentiate between the ellipsis and the em dash in your writing, and use each for the appropriate function. An ellipsis shows a pause, a slowed down break in thought or speech. It denotes a moment of reflection, a time for breath, and a break for things to settle in. An em dash, however, shows an interruption of thought of speech. It is harsher. It breaks off the action. It is immediate and brutal. There is no time to reflect. The em dash pulls you forward to the next moment, skipping over things in the process and leaving things unsaid.
- Do not use a semi-colon when a comma or colon is the piece of punctuation that is called for. The semi-colon has two (and only two) uses. The first use is quite possibly the only use a fiction writer will ever call upon old semi for. It joins two complete sentences that are directly related to each other together into one longer, complete sentence. That means that what falls on either side of the semi-colon must be a full, complete thought on its own. You cannot have a sentence fragment or a dependent clause on either side of a semi-colon. If you do, then you've done it wrong and should replace it with either a comma or a colon. The other use is for separating lists of items in which using a comma instead might cause confusion. You will find this more commonly in a technical reference of some sort. Youmight find need for it someday in your fiction writing, but generally, you will not.
- Do learn what each piece of punctuation is used for, and use them appropriately. Variety adds spice to life and energy to your writing. That doesn't mean you should go overboard with any of them. But learning to use a semi-colon can add a little flavor to your writing. Parenthetical expressions have fallen by the wayside in most fiction (perhaps because of misuse), but when used sparingly, they can provide great impact. Em dashes, ellipses, hyphens, and colons--all of them are at your disposal to get your meaning across in unique and exciting ways.
- Do not fear the colon in fiction. Now, that doesn't mean I want you to go colon crazy and insert them at every turn. But think about what they can bring to your writing. So often, we only see them with a list behind them. That isn't their only use, though! Take a gander at the following sentence. He stared out at the setting sun's reflection bouncing off the ocean's ripples and thought about the one thing he wanted most in life: Adrienne--happy and healthy again. These days, more often than not, I see a period in place of that colon. Sometimes I'll find a comma there. Other times, it'll be an em dash. To me, though, the perfect piece of punctuation to achieve this job is the colon. It says, "Look here. Something profound is on its way. Pay attention." The others just don't quite achieve the same effect.
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