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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- What is right for non-fiction may not be for fiction because fiction demands / allows more flexibility for voice.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Anything inconsistent.
- 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.)
- 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...
- 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.
- 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...
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?