A Writer’s Guide to Punctuation

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for clarifying things!!

  2. Thanks for the invitation to this meeting of Pedants Anonymous. Great to see such clear explanations.

    Apart from the triple compounds identified by London above, the main usage for the en dash is to indicate a range of numbers, such as 35–65°F.

    For Windows users, the Alt-key codes for these characters are:
    (Hold down alt key while typing four number keys on the keypad, or using the Fn key plus alt on laptops to access a virtual keypad)

    elipsis alt+0133
    en dash alt+0150
    em dash alt+0150

    Go to http://www.alt-codes.net/ for a complete list.

  3. Oops! Proof reading!

    em dash alt+0151

  4. Most confusing is the em dash, n dash, or hyphen choice when indicating a break in the sentence. Reason being, I’d never heard of em and en dashes until I started writing seriously about three years ago. It’s good to know that many of these rules are not hard and fast. I think the main thing is be as correct as possible, but also be consistent when you have options.

  5. @London: Thanks for sharing the Mac shortcuts! I’ll often see professionally published books that use the space/en dash/space gimmick. Drives me crazy, mostly because they should know better.

    @Lorna: Commas are hard to overuse. Misuse, yes, but when in doubt in a technically correct instance, we’re always better off adding the comma rather than leaving it out.

    @Traci: Thanks for commenting!

    @Murph: Thanks for adding the number shortcuts. The link looks particularly useful for those among us (*raises hand*) who get numbers scrambled in their brains.

    @Chris: Except in instances when the punctuation offers the author stylistic choices, most punctuation rules are almost always hard and fast, the hyphen, en, and em dash among them.

  6. Great post! I’ll be saving this one! Thank you!

  7. Thanks for the great post. Very useful.

  8. @Dovelily: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Jolea: Thanks for stopping by!

  9. I use commas more often because they can be used for most situations. That way I’m not struggling with which mark to use, and when. I mostly write by feel, since I don’t have a formal education in creative writing. Normally, I can read one of my sentences and recognize if something feels a little off. The one thing I have problems with is how to indicate a character is thinking directly to themselves. Do I use italics, or single quotes? Most often, I convey internal monologue and feelings of the characters through narrative.

  10. If you’re going to use direct thoughts, I prefer setting them apart from the rest of the narrative via italics, just for clarity’s sake. However, I’m not a big fan of direct thoughts. I like the character’s thoughts to flow seamlessly within the narrative, so the reader is never jarred for an instant and the entire book has the flavor of the character’s inner voice.

  11. I did not know about the difference between the hyphen and the en-dash, so thank you very much.

    That being said, the pair of dashes and the exclamation point are threatening to serve me with a restraining order. When I write e-mails and such, if I don’t revise, nearly every sentence has a double dash. The exclamation point is an enabler; it lets me get away with horribly generic verbs and adjectives.

  12. I used to death on exclamation points – and I still am in formal writing. But social media has slowly corrupted me. The exclamation point shows up a lot more in my informal writing nowadays! (<--See!)

  13. Finally someone who’s bothered by this as well. Bad grammar and punctuation has always been a pet peeve of mine, even if English is not my first language. Thank you for posting this! I really do love your definitions, especially between choosing the right form of quotes for dialogue. I wonder if there’s a third alternative? I’ll definitely bookmark this post!

  14. If there is a third alternative, I don’t know what it would be. Glad you enjoyed the post, fellow punctuation nut!

  15. Great article, but I would like to point out that in UK English, spaced en rules (to give them their correct, typographical title) are often used to indicate dashes. This is really a matter of house style rather than a hard-and-fast grammatical rule, therefore.

  16. Ah-ha, I didn’t know that. Makes more sense now why I see the en dash used in place of the em dash in professionally published books. Thanks for sharing!

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  19. I never use exclamation points in narrative, but I have been known to use them once or twice in dialogue. Is there any circumstance in which use of an exclamation point is ok?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, leave it out. But exclamation points in dialogue are totally acceptable if you need them to indicate that a character is shouting.

  20. Sorry I am late to the punctuation party. 😉 I’m so happy I discovered this because you’ve set everything out in the clearest way possible. I love when mentors use practical examples to show, not only tell.
    I’ve always had questions about the proper way to set off a word in a sentence and never knew if I should use ‘this’ or “this”, especially if the word is in a dialogue sentence. You’ve set me straight and I thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad to be of help! It’s also worth nothing that in American usage (I *think* it’s different in British), the comma should go inside the quote marks. Commas and periods go inside; colons and semi-colons go outside.

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