Punctuation in a story is like the spice in a soup. When we’re sipping that soup off our spoons, we’re not likely to notice or identify every spice that has created the uniquely delicious flavor caressing our taste buds. Same goes for punctuation. When shaken out with a skillful hand, the very effectiveness of punctuation makes it go unnoticed. On the other hand, when we choose the wrong punctuation in the wrong place, the result is the readerly equivalent of coughing over too much cayenne pepper.
Today, at the request of a Twitter follower, I’d like to offer a crash course in How to Use Punctuation to Spice Your Story to Perfect Redolence. Let’s look at some of the most commonly confused and misused punctuation marks.
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– or – or — or ~
When you want to indicate a break in your sentence, do you reach for the hyphen (-), the en dash (–), the em dash (—), or the tilde (~)?
The hyphen (-) is the smallest punctuation line and is created by tapping the hyphen key (found just after the zero on most keyboards). The hyphen is never used to indicate a break in the sentence. Its purpose is joining prefixes to root words (“self-defense”), connecting related modifiers (“long-haired woman”), and hyphenating a word that continues over two lines of text (“humon-gous”).
The en dash (–), so called because it is approximately the length of the lowercase letter “n,” can be created on most keyboards by putting a space on either side of a hyphen. The en dash is used to indicate a continuation between periods of time in which you might otherwise use the word “to” (1805–1905).
The em dash (—), so called because it is approximately the length of the lowercase letter “m,” can be created on most keyboards by placing two hyphens, with no spaces, between two words. The em dash is the proper choice for indicating a break in a sentence, particularly when the break is abrupt, as when a line of dialogue is interrupted (“I thought I heard—”).
The tilde (~), created by pressing Ctrl+Shift+button in the top left corner of most keyboards+(desired letter), should never be used independently within a sentence. The tilde should be used as an accent over a letter to indicate the pronunciation is nasalized (“niño”) and is incorrect when used to take the place of a dash (“Howdy ~ the Golden Retriever ~ caught the Frisbee.”)
. or ! or !!!
When you want to end a dramatic sentence, do you reach for the period, the exclamation point, or maybe even several exclamation points?
The period is almost always going to be your best bet.
Exclamation points should be used with sparing care, since, as F. Scott Fitzgerald explains, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” When you do decide the added emphasis of an exclamation point is necessary, never use more than one.
— — or () or , ,
When you want to include an appositive phrase (a modifying phrase that isn’t strictly necessary to the sentence), do you reach for a pair of dashes, a pair of parentheses, or a pair of commas? This question is a little more open-ended, since all of these options are correct. Your choice should be dependent on the effect you’re trying to achieve.
Dashes will set your appositive aside with more force, separating it definitively from the rest of the sentence, which can bring added clarity to complex sentences (e.g., “She looked up—her face a mask of horror—and reached for the telephone”).
Parentheses are rarely used in fiction unless the narrative tone is humorous or particularly confiding, since the words they contain often come across as a whispered aside to the audience (e.g., “She looked up (her face a mask of horror) and reached for the telephone”).
Commas are the most common and most appropriate choice for most sentences (e.g., “She looked up, her face a mask of horror, and reached for the telephone”). The only time you shouldn’t use commas is when you’re afraid the sentence is growing too complex or convoluted (in which case you’d probably be wise to divide it into several sentences) or when the appositive requires the emphatic force of the dash.
“” or ‘’
When you want to indicate a line of dialogue or set aside a particular word within a sentence (She used the word “sweetie” as if it were an epithet), do you reach for single or double quotation marks?
This one gets a little tricky, since the answer will vary depending on where you (and your publisher) live. In American usage, double quotation marks are always correct, except in instances of a quote within a quote (e.g., “She used the word ‘sweetie’ as if it were an epithet,” Margaret said.)
In British usage, single quotation marks are correct (e.g., ‘She used the word “sweetie” as if it were an epithet,’ Margaret said.)
, or ; or :
When you want to separate independent clauses, do you reach for a comma, a semicolon, or a colon? In this instance, your choice is largely a personal one, since all three can be used to divide a sentence.
A comma, paired with a conjunction, should be the punctuation mark you reach for most often, since it’s the most utilitarian, invisible, and therefore preferable choice (e.g., “Carolyn went to the store one last time, and I went with her”).
The semicolon, oft derided for being an unnecessary punctuation mark, is a stylistic choice that offers a happy medium between the “soft” break of a comma and the “hard” break of a period (e.g., “Carolyn went to the store one last time; I went with her”).
The colon is most often used to indicate a list of items (“I went to the store for the following items: milk, bread, and cheese”), but a “jumper colon” can also be used to break a sentence and show a cause and effect progression between the first half of the sentence and the second (e.g., “Carolyn went to the store one last time: I went with her”). So there you have it! If you can master these sometimes tricky punctuation rules, your story will turn out as savory as a properly spiced soup.
Tell me your opinion: What punctuation rule do you find most confusing?
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