Sunday 14 March 2010


Some time ago, I had a request from Kate B, who said:
I would love a post on punctuation. Is there a modern, acceptable form? Is it a new art form or something that should remain set in stone? An example. Instead of exclamation marks, using very short sentences and full stops.
In a way, there is only one sort of correct punctuation: that which most clearly helps the reader read the words in the desired way.

As ever, once I start to unpick things it all becomes more complicated. And if I didn't unpick it, you lot certainly would. So, here goes.
  1. No, it is not set in stone; yes, it changes with time; and there are different styles / conventions for different types of writing. There are some things which are indubitably wrong and others which are a matter of style and choice.
  2. There are different conventions in different parts of the world. Let me be more specific: the UK and the US punctuate differently. I first discovered this when my first novel was "translated" into American. So, when reading this post, or anything else I write, please bear in mind that I write UK fluently and am less good at US, even though I recognise that US punctuation is actually closer to the old-fashioned (in a good way) formal rules that I was taught in my traditional education. I was taught that subordinate clauses and phrases should always be separated by commas, for example, and that all punctuation rules followed syntax and grammar, rather than following speech patterns. Modern UK style, at least for fiction, tends to favour following speech patterns more than strict syntax, but the US usage tends to prefer proto-correct comma-use. Therefore, US writing tends to have more commas than British.
  3. What was correct 50 years ago may not be the preferred way now. This is part of writing modernly. (Yes, I KNOW the word modernly doesn't exist, but modern writers can play with language, and punctuation, more deliciously. As long as the readers are not offended. And you probably are offended by modernly but I don't care because this is my blog and I am the boss.)
  4. What is right for non-fiction may not be for fiction because fiction demands / allows more flexibility for voice.
  5. There may be some aspects of "house style" which you will have to follow for a specific publisher. BUT, do not fret about this: these details can be changed after acceptance and they are a copy-editing issue. All you must do is be consistent and not flout genuine structural rules. You will not be rejected because you've broken house style.
Leaving those complications aside:

Punctuation is simple because it only has one raison d'etre. (Where's the circumflex on my keyboard??) Yes, the only thing you need to bear in mind when deciding how to punctuate is this: punctuation is there to help the reader.

But NOTE: Part of helping the reader involves making your page easy on the eye and following as closely as possible the conventions that he /she expects. This means you should not pepper your page with anything unusual. Unless it's my blog, in which case you'll see it's peppered with bolds and colours and CAPS and all manner of tacky ornaments.

Here are some of the annoying things that writers sometimes do and which you should avoid if you're hoping that agents and publishers will approve of you:
  1. Over-use of exclamation marks!! Never use a double exclamation mark in formal writing. Never!!!!! Actually, in formal writing, and exclamation mark should usually only be used for a command or genuine exclamation. Such as, NO! Idiot! Don't do it! Or in dialogue, obviously. But you should minimise exclamation marks unless you actually want your writing to look like the Beano.
  2. Over-use of semi-colons. Oh, it's awfully clever and don't we just so admire your ability to remember what Miss Barker told you in your English lessons when you were twelve, but we'd really much rather witness your beautiful prose style now that you're grown-up. In non-fiction, fine, semi-colon to your heart's content; but not in fiction.
  3. Over-use of anything other than full-stops (periods, in the US) and commas - including ellipses and dashes... I tend to over-use dashes (see below for em-dashes - and, btw, blogger won't actually let me do em-dashes, which is great because I hate them, modern little buggers.)
  4. Anything inconsistent.
As far as actual errors of punctuation are concerned, obviously you must not have any errors at all. Three common genuine punctuation errors are:
  1. Comma splices. The fact that Iris Murdoch spliced her commas all over the place does not mean you can. (For those who don't know this term, it's when someone writes, for example: The dog chased the cat, the cat managed to escape. That comma should be a full-stop or a semi-colon. On the other hand, this would be correct: The dog chased the cat, the cat managed to escape and the mouse decided never to call on the services of the dog again. As a point of interest, it would NOT be wrong nowadays to have a comma after "escape" in that second version. In fact, if I was writing fiction, my personal style would be to have a comma there because it helps the reader's flow.)
  2. Wrong use of apostrophes. Wrongly or rightly, one of the best ways to indicate poor grasp of language is to show poor grasp of apostrophes. (Does anyone want a lesson in apostrophes? I won't be crabbit to anyone who says she / he would like a reminder, I promise. I'd much rather you asked.) It's a shame because I know people who have an otherwise perfect command of grammar etc but can't get apostrophes. I have no idea why, but I do not despise people who don't quite get it: they just haven't been taught by me. Can you tell I was an English teacher?? By the way, two question marks together is also not an acceptable part of formal writing...
  3. Wrong use of speech punctuation. Complicated rules but they must be grasped. Get a punctuation book or see here, as I'm afraid I can't be bothered to tell you.
Other points and things I can't be bothered to go into, with some possibly useful links:
  • em-dashes and en-dashes - see here or here and if you find some contradictions, don't blame me. I like this article too. But further than that, I can't get myself worked up about big your dashes are, I'm afraid.
  • don't leave a space before a punctuation point. So, not so . 
  • want to know about ellipses? Go here.
  • unnecessary quotation marks? There's a whole blog about them.
  • oh, and if you want a fairly clear apostrophe lesson, there's one here, though there are two aspects that are not fully explained and I could do it better...
More important than any rules, however - though this is precisely the reason for the rules - is the paramount desire for your reader to read your words in the way you intend and not to be bamboozled by random bits of punctuation. Punctuation is a fabulous tool for controlling your reader - you even get to control where they breathe. That's what I call power!

One more thing: although copy-editors and proof-readers will ensure that your MS is clean by the time it gets to print, you cannot expect an editor to overlook your crappy punctuation and accept your book: crappy punctuation is too often a sign of lack of clarity of thought and prose style. So, get it right. it's like going out with gravy on your shirt. You wouldn't want to, would you?


Glynis Peters said...

Thanks for the lesson, filed for reference. Yes please to the apostrophe post. The dog's dinner always makes me think of my old English master, when he gave us the apostrophe lesson. I never looked at meat in the same light again. LOL.

Kath McGurl said...

Thanks Nicola, and thanks too for the link to the unnecessary "quotes" blog which has given me a lot of "mother's day" chuckles.

Sally Zigmond said...

If I'm reading anything, particularly faction, then I want the punctuation to be invisible and that's only achieved if it's done properly and consistently. I am not a grammar pedant but coming across bad or incorrect punctuation breaks the bond between the reader and the story in the same way as clunky sentences or any other infelicity.

SF said...

Exclamation marks! There's something about communicating electronically (texts, email, blogs) that compels me to end about every second sentence with one. I don't want to get too philosophical on a post about punctuation, but it's almost as if I don't trust my words to get my tone across -- heaven forbid someone thinks I'm humourless! (See what I mean.)
It's a terrible habit to get into, and I'm always catching myself putting in inappropriate exclamations in my writing.

Daniel Blythe said...

Amused by circumflex issues. I am so useless at finding shortcuts for French, German and Spanish symbols that I have a permanent Notepad window with them all stored and just cut and paste as required. It lacks élan, perhaps, but it does stop them from being a bête noire.

The only time I've ever required the Spanish was when I mentioned El Niño for some reason.

Unknown said...

Yes, please do a post on apostrophe use as the part of my brain that always knew what to do with them seems to have withered and died.

Harry Markov said...

The problem I have is more or less connected with the fact that I am communicating with people, who are both US and UK and read books by both US and UK imprints and I am quite positive that my punctuation is a horrible illegitimate child of the two styles.

Thanks for the insight. I bet you were the best English teacher evah.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

So glad this post finally showed up on blogger. I'm a punctuation and grammar junkie. I read Strunk & White for fun. But it's not nearly as much fun as reading this post of yours lol! And I totally agree with Sally. Punctuation should be invisible, not draw attention to itself, and open doors of understanding to the reader while remaining invisible.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Love this post! And am adding your paragraph: "Punctuation is a fabulous tool for controlling your reader - you even get to control where they breathe. That's what I call power!" to our page of writing quotes. One of the best I've seen in a long time!

Thomas Taylor said...

I don't think I would be able to write at all without hyphens and dashes -- they're just so useful.

Jennifer Jensen said...

Now I know why many submissions in my crit group are missing the comma after the dependent clause that opens the sentence. Drives me batty, but I'm on THIS side of the pond, now, so I'd better get used to it. Thanks!

CC MacKenzie said...

Hi Nicola, as a woman who has moved 19 times in 26years, you have my deepest sympathy.

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style and Warriner's English Grammar and Composition (a US college manual)are, in my opinion, the most useful tools a writer can have.
I'm British.

And as the great Elmore Leonard says:

"I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

He also says:

"The writer needs to remain invisible."

We can only do both of the above with a firm grasp of "Punctuation points!" LOL - Couldn't help but put in the exclamation points!!!!


David John Griffin said...

Enjoyable post, this one. I love punctuation! Well, steady on me, I mean it's part of my enjoyment of writing, as I'm sure it is for every writer. Being part and parcel of the page, punctuation gives it rhythm, pace and clarity; control of a reader's breathing, as you so succinctly put it, Nicola. It's something I'm still learning.

I was really interested to read about one of your novels being "translated" into American. As it happens, i have a complete manuscript with an American publisher at the moment and I was wondering that if it was accepted (touch wood, fingers crossed, please, please, please) whether or not mine would be "translated". I guess I'll cross that bridge if/when they accept me for publication. (For a few who might not know one aspect of American novel writing, speech puctuation and quotation marks are opposite to the English useage. I think.)

One of my favourite punctuation marks has to be the semi-colon. You are so right that it can be overused, something I've been guilty of in the past. And I still have to watch that I don't carry on that trend.

I've always been aware of not overusing the exclamation mark though; I try to keep it to a maximum of one or maybe two in a complete novel, if at all. (although in a novella I'm writing I've used it at least 12 times so far, but being experimental writing, I'm hoping I can get away with it...)

It dawned on me a while back that creative writing is a life-long learning curve, including using punctuation.

Your comment; at the, end?! Indeed; must, not...flout!! The genuine: structural – "rules'. ;-)

PS For your info Nicola, the circumflex (on a Mac keyboard) is: alt + i, then the character. I'm guessing it might be the same on a PC.


Anna and Kate said...

How lovely to both see this post. And to see this post (exclamation mark) as for a while I was nose pressed up against the glass knowing it was on my dashboard but not being able to access it.

Confirms many thoughts - including a difference between fiction and non-fiction which looking back, inspired the original question.

Big thank you - is a post I will certainly return to again and again

Kate B xxx

Anonymous said...

The thing which I hate miost is when they put a question mark inside a sentence followed by he or she wondered. Surely the question mark should come after the wondered? Perhaps it's the modern way but I hate it when they do that to one of my published stories.

Kamagra said...

I'm a teacher of English and Spanish and one of the things that always causes trouble is punctuation and all those tedious rules that everybody have to deal with.