The Power of Punctuation

by Marg McAlister

 

Punctuation, when used creatively, is powerful. Note, however, that when I say 'when used creatively', I don't mean that you can make up the rules.

I am not saying that you can write sentences that are half a page long without a single comma, full stop, semi-colon or anything else to give the unfortunate reader a rest. That's not being creative. That's being lazy. That's being tiresome.

What your writing should do is... well, make music. The way you order your sentences and punctuate your work can guide the reader to 'hear' the words just as you want them to.

This Tipsheet is not going to be a guide to punctuation. There are plenty of websites devoted to teaching you the basics of grammar and punctuation. (I'll list some of them at the end of this article.) Instead, I'm going to comment on a few things that I've seen spoiling otherwise good stories, and I'm going to pass on a few tips.

THE FULL STOP (or PERIOD)

A full stop, or a period, is used to indicate the end of a sentence. I was actually going to leave this out, because it seems self-evident. However, I remembered the many, many manuscripts I've critiqued in which the writer has shown a fine disregard for any kind of punctuation to end a sentence. So... the full stop is in. NOTE: A full stop is NOT used at the end of a sentence that is spoken by someone if what they say is followed by a speech tag. Hence, you write:  

"Come here, Mary," he ordered.


NOT

"Come here, Mary." He ordered.


The speech tag "he ordered" is part of the entire sentence, not a sentence on its own.

THE COMMA

A comma indicates a pause which makes the sense of a sentence clear. Unfortunately, many writers sprinkle commas through a manuscript like confetti. They seem to think that a comma can do the work of pretty well any other punctuation mark. I have a feeling that quite often, writers pause to think about what they want to write next, and add a comma while they're musing. Then they keep going... stop to think again and add another comma... and on it goes. This produces what is known as a 'run on' sentence. The writer has 'spliced' sentences together with commas.

An example of a run-on sentence formed by 'splicing' with commas: 

Jack ran along after Pete, his legs getting more tired with every step, he wished he hadn't decided to come along on this trip, it had turned out to be a disaster, Pete was bossy and didn't care what happened to anyone else as long as he got his own way.


(Believe me, this is mild compared to some sentences I've seen - the worst was a sentence that grew to a whole page without any punctuation but commas.)

A corrected version of the paragraph above:

 Jack ran along after Pete, his legs getting more tired with every step. He wished he hadn't decided to come along. What a disaster. Pete didn't care what happened to anyone else, as long as he got his own way.

This is not the only version that would be correct - there are usually a number of ways to effectively punctuate a sentence.
I have chosen to use the sentence fragment 'What a disaster' as a sentence on its own because we are tapping into Jack's thoughts, and most people don't think in full sentences.

THE ELLIPSIS

... three dots in a row is called an ellipsis. (If it comes at the end of a sentence, you use four dots.) An ellipsis shows that something is 'trailing off'.

For example: someone runs out of steam when trying to defend himself, or he doesn't know what to say next, or he is thinking of how to explain something (in which case the ellipsis might appear in the middle of a sentence).

An example:

 John hesitated. How could he explain what had gone wrong? "Well, it was when I was heading into the main pavilion... I looked around to say something to Jenny, and she wasn't there." He shrugged helplessly. "I dunno... she just... disappeared."

THE DASH

The dash indicates that something after it is going clarify what has gone before. (For example: He hated being made to wash up - it always clashed with his favourite TV program.) Dashes can also offset an explanation. (For example: Mary - John's sister - was the last to arrive.)

In addition, the dash may be used to show that someone's dialogue has been interrupted. Use a dash rather than an ellipsis to show an interruption of dialogue, because an interruption implies a sudden event, not a trailing off.

For example:

Tim protested: "But I wasn't anywhere near --"

 "Don't bother denying it!" his father raged. "I'm tired of your glib explanations!"

Bookmark a Good Grammar Site 

There are plenty of websites to help you with your grammar. Just type "grammar help" into your web browser and you'll be inundated. Bookmark the one that you find easiest to use.

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

 

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