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Friday, May 20, 2011

Guest Blogger: Mindy Moore

Join us in welcoming guest blogger Mindy Moore today. Mindy is a freelance editor who is fascinated by grammar and fixated by punctuation. Stop by her blog to learn more about her editing services and similar editing tips to what she's sharing today.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. "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.
  7. 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. 
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
One lucky commenter who shares a favorite punctuation tip or pet peeve and leaves a contact email address will win a free partial edit of up to 10,000 words.


  1. Words to live by :) Great post, Mindy! (PS - I'me too scared to say much else - I don't want to use incorrect punctuation!) ;)

  2. Thanks for the tips, Mindy! Oop, she there I go again with the exclaimations. =P That's exactly why I need an editor, right? I highly recommend Mindy as a freelance editor. She'll put it to you straight and always lead you in the right direction without diminishing your voice.

  3. Great rules, Minday. I will be sure to refer back to this the next time I'm uncertain.

  4. My pet peeve has nothing to do with punctuation, but with writing. I hate that the phrase "try to" is continuously misused to read "try and". Example: I will try to go to the store tomorrow. Not: I will try and go to the store tomorrow.

    I read not long ago that the try/to try/and misuse is now being accepted since so many professionals are now using it.

  5. Hello, Mindy.
    This is an excellent post, and one I'm going to print and refer to in times of punctuation stress.

    I don't have a pet peeve, more a new-found friend. I've become quite fond of the colon lately, but have only used it a few times.

    I've been meaning to contact you about editing and am thrilled to have this post as an introduction.

    L. j.

  6. I know--two comments. I'm not trying to stack the contest in my favor, really I'm not. :)

    I checked out your website, Mindy, and I'm wondering if you only work with historical manuscripts, or will you also edit young adult and women's fiction?

    Thanks, l. j.

  7. The littered comma (a comma serving no purpose other than to clutter up a perfectly good sentence) is my pet peeve. Unfortunately, I find myself being a litter-bug lately.

    I really enjoyed this post. Very useful.

    Heather (dgzotz@gmail.com)

  8. I admit to being comma challenged. Printed this post to keep in my notebook so I can refer to it often. One thing I do admit to hating is the use of the semi-colon in dialogue. It just doesn't work that way! Great post!

  9. Callie, that one bothers me, too, but I'm afraid we have J.R.R. Tolkien to blame for it. Before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, such a construction was rarely, if ever, found in print. However, he used it as part of the languages he created for Middle Earth. It didn't make it into his first edition, thanks to a copy editor, but he got it corrected to the way he wanted it in the subsequent reprints. I am guilty of using it in speech, but I cringe when I find it in writing.

    L.J., thanks for checking me out! Yes, I'll gladly edit YA and women's fiction. Most of my clients to this point have been historical writers, but I am widely read in many genres. I'd probably be least helpful to a straight science-fiction author, or perhaps to a literary writer. Other than that, though, I'm wide open.

    Heather, thanks for stopping by. I hate to blame something like this on High School English teachers, but I think much of the overuse of commas can be placed there. I recall at least a few of mine telling us that if we would pause, then we should put a comma in. It seems most of us fall into one of two categories: comma overusers or comma-phobes. I think I fall into the overuser category more often than not, but luckily I tend to catch most of my excess commas in revision.

    ***Posted on Mindy's behalf due to blogger misbehaving.

  10. Please don't enter me in the drawing as Mindy is already my editor and I love, love, love her! I just wanted to stop by and *wave*!