Monday, September 3, 2012

Commas and Dashes and Colons (oh my!)

Punctuation. Such a bugaboo. But in spite of recurring trends toward throwing all punctuation rules on their pointy little pinheads, it turns out that commas and dashes and colons, not to mention semi-colons. do matter. All of them—that's right—all, have a place in the traditional (i.e. non-experimental) novel.

Like many writers today, I would argue that punctuation in novels works best when it's not noticeable—that is, when it is modest in nature and seen so commonly that the eye just naturally skims over it while it does its job. The humble and lovely comma, used well, is a good example.

On the other end of the spectrum are punctuation marks that stop the flow of the narrative, like colons and semi-colons. Use them where you must—and sometimes you must—but in a piece of dramatic writing it's great to avoid writing sentences that require them if you can. Exclamation marks are even more fervently to be avoided.

Punctuation has a critical function: making the meaning of a sentence (or a series of sentences) clear. (Obviously, more types of punctuation are useful in explanatory non-fiction narrative, like a blog post, than in novels.)  :)

Punctuation also has a bonus function for writers who are comfortable with its nuances: creating special emphasis without adding words.

To illustrate the last point, here's some of what Priscilla Long (author of the excellent book on writing, The Writer's Portable Mentor) says about effective use of punctuation by sophisticated writers (pp. 254-257):

"Here [are] a few moves that first-rate writers have under their belts and other writers don't.

Commas and Semicolons In a List

Whether you adore or deplore the semicolon, know where it should go if you should want to use it. Knowing this, you can use it or refuse it without looking inept.

In a list, if a single item has a comma within it, then semicolons separate the different items.

Mondrian's loves were Paris, France; London; Amsterdam; and New York.

Even one comma within one item in a long list of items forces semicolons to separate the different items.

 Phrasal Adjectives

A phrasal adjective is an adjective made of two or more words: . . . (for example): real-estate broker. Except for ly words (nearly white walls) and proper nouns, phrasal adjectives should be hyphenated—to make reading easier and to avoid misreadings: small-business owner, not small business owner (that tiny person). 

. . . (from Bryan A. Garner's General Rule): when a phrase functions as an adjective . . . the phrase should ordinarily be hyphenated. Hence, the soup is burning hot becomes the burning-hot soup; the child is six years old becomes the six-year-old child. Most professional writers know this. Most nonprofessionals don't.

Comma, Dash, and Colon

. . . One use of the dash is to set off an appositive. Appositives clarify and expand the meaning of nouns, within the same sentence.
     Gauguin's life—poverty, disease, loneliness, disillusion, guilt—was wholly tragic. (John Berger, 
"Gauguin's Crime," 65)

There are three ways [comma, dash, colon] to punctuate an appositive, moving from least emphatic to most emphatic.

- Lou was the prize of Kent County, a sleek black racehorse.
- Lou was the prize of Kent County—a sleek black racehorse.
- Lou was the prize of Kent County: a sleek black racehorse.


Interrupters are a cool way to create emphasis or pack in information. An interrupter can be a phrase or an entire sentence interjected into another sentence.

- Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 147)

-Otto fished up a magazine from the floor—one of the popular science magazines William always left lying around—and idly opened it. (Deborah Eisenberg, "Some Other, Better Otto," 49)

(and here's an exception to the rule) . . ."Yes, you do include the question mark or exclamation point in an interrupter sentence. And no, you don't include the period."

Do you have a favorite punctuation mark? Or a pet peeve about them?


  1. Linda, I put this on my favorite list, so that I can come back. My brain's fried from driving today. But I'm so glad you've done this post, I will come back to it and read through, and might even print it up so that I can really study it (^;

    1. Rest up, Lorelei. A lot of exhaustion is going around! Yes, these tips are pretty interesting, I think. Cool tricks of the trade that are easy and can make a big difference.

  2. Linda, this is fabulous. I'm thinking, and hoping you make these posts into a book for review.

    I did not know the ; use with Paris, France. Interesting. And your tip-adding the question mark?-I didn't know.

    These tips are perfect for me because I know I have so much to learn. I was told no 'snicker' quotes. Yet I see them used often, and I like them. Over use of the comma... is there a rule on how many you can put in a sentence? And I don't mean separating a list. I'm thinking breaking up a three line sentence. (Or longer.) Wait... should I put a period inside the brackets? That's a good one. When (and can we) use them for punctuation?

    1. That would be a fun project, Karlene! Maybe when I've done about six or seven months' worth.
      I'm not so sure about the 'snicker' quote either. It's certainly common usage, and I think, can do a good job if not overused. That comma thing. You are so right! When it's used many times because there are a lot of dependent clauses in a sentence, it's time to break that sentence into more than one.

  3. I love em dashes and ellipses! But I try hard not to use them too much.

    1. Me, too, Lydia. Could you guess from this post? :)

  4. LOVE this post--learned a lot, thank you!

    I'm gonna answer your mental health Monday question next Monday on my blog--great topic! :)

    1. That's great, Laura. I'll be reading avidly monday morning!

  5. Hi, Linda,

    Thanks for the mini punctuation lesson. It's a nice refresher course and easy to understand. Punctuation KILLED me in my first year of writing. It took me a while to get it down. I used to be the ellipse King ... LOL. And, yes, I still use them, but sparingly. LOL

    1. Ellipses . . . Love Them! But they are addictive. I wonder if they reflect the way we think when we're writing, so we can't resist them?

  6. Linda, I am reading Janet Evanovich's book, Wicked Appetite has every quote for all dialogue with snicker quotes. The entire thing! Why? Why? Because it's first person and she's retelling what they are saying?

    1. Retelling the entire thing sounds difficult! I have to check that out . . . can't understand why she would do that with the quote marks.

  7. I just proofread a novel that included multiple colons... drove me a little bonkers.
    I do love a good splashing of ellipses and dashes.
    And the good old exclamation... !!!!! hehe possibly I'm a little heave handed in that area.
    Great post :)

    1. Multiple colons, oh, dear. It can be a tough transition from business or non-fiction writing to fiction. Time for that writer to put on his/her storytelling hat! Thanks for dropping in, Michelle.

  8. Hi Linda- Thanks so very much for putting up this Post.
    This is going to help me a lot in writing my first Novel which is in the mid-way.
    I can't thank you enough.

    Amit Gupta.

    1. You are so welcome, Amit. I'm glad it's of use. Midway through your first novel— fantastic! What a great place to be.