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The average person rarely needs to worry much about punctuation beyond a few basics. For the most part, those we communicate with don't care if the punctuation is off as long as they understand what we've written. Once we go beyond everyday communication and enter the world of business, clarity of meaning becomes more important. In the legal world, a misplaced or missing comma can critically alter the meaning. Here's one example of the importance of punctuation:


[REFERENCE: https://www.languageconnections.com/blog/legal-grammar-rules-and-translation/]


The following is a direct quote from the site (including its punctuation errors):


"One of the latest examples of the tricky use of commas in legal cases is regarding a recent lawsuit in Maine. Delivery drivers from Oakhurst Dairy, a local milk and cream company, were engaged in litigation with their employers for some time over whether they were entitled to overtime pay. A U.S. court of appeals determined on March 13th that Maine's overtime law was grammatically ambiguous in some of its clauses. Due to that ambiguity, the drivers from Oakhurst Dairy won the appeal.


"All the fuss over this case originated on the use of what is known as the "serial comma" or the "Oxford comma". This type of comma is used before the coordinating conjunction when three or more items are listed in order to clarify the meaning of a sentence. How does it come into play with Oakhurst Dairy?


"According to state law, the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay in Maine:


"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods


"Oxford Comma rules state that there should have been a comma between "shipment" and "or". The lack of the comma in this case makes it difficult to determine if "packing for shipment or distribution" is a single activity or, if "packing for shipment or distribution" is an activity separate from just "distribution". In the former situation, only packing done for shipment and distribution would be exempt for overtime pay, while in the latter packing for shipment would be exempt, as would the activity of distribution.


"The court's final ruling was in favor of the delivery drivers who argued that the lack of a comma meant "packing for shipment or distribution" was one action. Therefore, the drivers were entitled to overtime pay for their distribution work. The state of Maine on the other hand, learned an important lesson in legal grammar rules.


"The Maine case is not the only one to have proved the importance of commas in legal cases. Back in 2006, a dispute in Canada over a comma in a 14 page long contract signed between Rogers Communications of Toronto and Bell Aliant cost 1 million Canadian dollars. It would seem that paying attention in grammar class has become essential to avoid potential lawsuits."



Fortunately, we fiction writers don't have to worry about this type of legal issue in our writing, but we do want our readers to understand what we're saying. We don't want them tripping over something and have to back up to figure out what we meant. Good writing should be seamless, and part of that seamlessness involves punctuation that makes the writing clear.


On top of that, when critical readers spot grammar issues in our writing, they will be less inclined to take our writing seriously and reluctant to purchase our books again. Before purchasing a book by an indie author, I look at the sample on Amazon. Of course, I'll check out the reviews and the promotional synopsis first to see if I'm interested in the story, but if I see incompetent writing in that sample in the beginning, then no matter how much the reviews raved about it, I'm likely not going to buy it. As an editor, it's hard enough for me to turn off the editor part of me and to read purely for pleasure. Too many errors and poor writing distract me from enjoying the story.


Early punctuation in English was aimed at the spoken word instead of the written one. George Bernard Shaw said that punctuation was an aid to reading aloud, and as late as the end of the eighteenth century, punctuation was still treated this way. I believe that's how any writer should treat it today.



My goal here is not to educate you on the basics of punctuation but to point out some stumbling blocks and some tidbits on the latest style recommendations.


We were taught in school how to write (and speak) what we call formal English. We were taught about writing complete sentences, subject and verb agreement, and a bunch of other rules of the language. However, we don't always speak in complete sentences, and our thoughts are often not complete sentences either. Alongside formal English exists the informal language we use to express ourselves every day in situations where complete sentences aren't needed.


When writing nonfiction, the more formal language is used and generally expected for clarity. But in fiction we often leave the formality behind and enter a world where we see characters who don't obey the rules of the formal language.


In this world, it's important that we capture it faithfully for our readers. However, this means we need to be more cognizant of the formal rules so that we understand how to bend them to the needs of our story. Our readers understand the formal language and we must be careful to stay within certain bounds lest we come across as incompetent writers. This means that a good writer must know the grammar better than the reader. Even if your readers don't know the rules (or don't care), when you step outside certain bounds, they will at least subconsciously feel that something isn't right, and those who do understand the rules will balk at your ineptness.


Indie authors more than ever need to know and understand what they're doing. If you don't and think you can simply hire an editor to clean things up, you're asking for trouble because you're relying on someone else, someone who didn't pen the work, to properly make up for your shortcomings. And that's iffy at best.


With that introduction, let's begin.




In school we heard about sentence fragments and presumably about something called a comma splice. A sentence fragment is simply a incomplete sentence that's missing a subject, a verb, or both, and may consist of a single word or phrase:



Why not?

Too bad you didn't take the money.

You coming with me?

See ya.

Because that's how it is.


There's nothing wrong with these in the appropriate context because this is how we often think and speak in real life.


Comma splices are a bit more subtle. We know that a complete sentence ends with a period. If you want to join two complete sentences, you do so by using a conjunction (called a coordinating conjunction, such as, and, but, or), and we generally put a comma before the conjunction.


>>> After school, John changed his clothes. He went to join his friends at the arcade.


 >>> After school, John changed his clothes, and he went to join his friends at the arcade.


When those sentences are joined by a comma without a conjunction, it's called a comma splice. Not only is it grammatically incorrect, but it doesn't flow properly. Even if you don't understand that it's wrong, you can feel that the sentence is off.


 >>> After school, John changed his clothes, he then went to join his friends at the arcade.


Can you spot the problems in the following?


>>> Looking back on his marriage, Josh saw his mistakes, he'd been inattentive to his wife's needs, too focused on his career. His attempt to make amends failed. Too little, too late. No one to blame but himself.


There's only ONE clear error here: the comma splice between mistakes and he'd. In formal writing, the last two sentence fragments would be considered unacceptable, but in fiction, they're fine.


Now, let's bring the semicolon into the mix. Semicolons have exactly TWO uses. The first is to join two closely related sentences (or fragments), and in some cases it can replace the comma in a comma-spliced sentence. But the caveat here is that the sentences joined by a semicolon need to follow one another closely and show parallelism, contrast, or cause and effect. When so used, the sentence or fragment following the semicolon is not capitalized.


>>> Ten years ago, Sam and I married our high school sweethearts. His marriage has survived; mine ended in a divorce. (contrast)


>>> Jerry wears short sleeve shirts even in the winter; Evan wears them only in warm weather. (parallelism and contrast)


>>> Pete came to the party sober; he was drunk an hour later. (cause and effect)


Could we justify semicolons in our earlier example?


>>> Looking back on his marriage, Josh saw his mistakes; he'd been inattentive to his wife's needs, too focused on his career. His attempt to make amends failed. Too little, too late; no one to blame but himself.


Neither of these semicolons fully fits the criteria for their use. Another consideration is that the semicolon should be used only when truly warranted and not tossed in purely as a punctuational variant.


And here's an example of semicolon use with conjunctive adverbs (therefore, however, instead) that you won't run across often in fiction. The justification is that there is a strong connection between the two sentences and that it fits one or more of the previously stated conditions.


>>> You can use semicolons in many places; however, that doesn't mean you should use them everywhere you can.


Here are some INCORRECT uses of the semicolon:


>>> Neal likes quiet music in the background; when he is reading. (delete the semicolon)


>>> Ellen likes ice-skating; not roller-skating. (use a comma)


>>>Keep your friends close; Your enemies closer. (comma and no cap)


>>>I stayed up to finish my school project; all night long. (3 options here, none of which are a semicolon: nothing, comma, dash)


The other use of the semicolon involves uncluttering a sentence that has a lot of commas. The example below has many necessary commas and is difficult for the eye to parse. (Note the colon, whose purpose we'll discuss a bit later.)


>>> The three men who currently had a claim on his life were all in the room: Dmitri Rostov, the Russian FSB agent; Stephen Hall, ex-Special Forces; and Joseph Angelo, mob boss.




I mentioned previously that a comma is used to join two complete sentences when a coordinating conjunction is involved (and, but, or). Sometimes I'll see writers incorrectly putting a comma AFTER the conjunction:


>>> Kevin's friends wanted to go to see the new Avengers movie. But, he had a paper due tomorrow and decided not to go with them.


You can join the two sentences and put the comma BEFORE the but. The comma after it is not warranted. One exception exists when a clause or phrase follows the conjunction:


>>> Kevin's friends wanted to go see the new Avengers movie, but, because he had a paper due tomorrow, he decided not to go with them.


The comma on both sides of the conjunction, while technically correct, looks a tad weird. The style guides suggest omitting the one after the conjunction unless the clause or phrase is long enough that the comma is needed for clarity.


Sometimes we're tempted to insert the comma just because we want a pause, but only insert a comma if you can justify it with a rule for its use.




Writers sometimes insert incorrect commas before "as" clauses in sentences.


"As" can have two different meanings. One uses the comma; the other does not. When "as" means while or during (in the sense of "in the same way or at the same time"), don't use a comma. When it means because or just like, it's treated like a parenthetical remark. If the "as" clause begins the sentence, treat it like any introductory phrase and use a comma, regardless of the meaning.




>>> Evan slid the key into the lock, as he looked around to see if anyone was watching.


>>> Angela listened to the radio, as she cooked breakfast as she always did every Saturday morning.




>>> Evan slid the key into the lock as he looked around to see if anyone was watching. (=while)


>>> Angela listened to the radio as she cooked breakfast, as she always did every Saturday morning. (1st=while; 2nd=just like)


>>> As he looked around to see if anyone was watching, Evan slid the key into the lock. (introductory clause)


>>> It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that they would hook up, as they had already both declared their mutual attraction. (=because)


>>> Ted's father, a career-Army man, expected his son to join the Army, as his brother Simon had done. (=just like)




Normally we separate adverbs (e.g., too, either, also, though, as well) and adverbial phrases only when they come at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence. There used to be a longstanding convention that a comma should precede too at the end of a sentence, but this comma is usually unnecessary. The adverbs too and either used at the end of a sentence in the sense of "also" do not need a comma before them. Many editors will add the comma, while others will take it out. The CMOS now omits it except where emphasis is required for clarity.


Mike wants to go to the dance too.


Dave is going to the play, and Kevin, too, wants to go.


We expected Sarah to come to the party, but she never showed up. Jackie didn't show up(,) either. (only add the comma if you want to emphasize the either.




A lot of writers stumble over the use of the apostrophe when it comes to plurals and possessives.


Is an apostrophe ever used to form the plural of a word? NO—with one exception: with certain letters of the alphabet when the plural of a letter could be confused with another word or an abbreviation: as, is, bs (use A's and I's). When one plural letter in the sentence needs an apostrophe, but others don't, be consistent and use apostrophes for all.


>>> Be sure to dot your i's and cross your t's. (not "is" and "ts")


>>> Mind your p's and q's.


>>> Bob Babbitt has a lot of b's in his name. ("bs" would be confusing and amusing)


>>> There are two a's in "manual." (the alternative "as" would be viewed as a typographical error)


>>> She got all A's and B's in school except for two C's in gym class. (Letter grades are capitalized)


Plurals of decades simply add the s with no apostrophe. However, if you abbreviate the decade, an apostrophe precedes it.


>>> Even though they grew up in the 1980s, they loved '60s rock 'n' roll music.


If you're using smart quotes, the apostrophe in these cases should point to the left. The same is true if using a contraction that begins with an apostrophe.


>>> Tell 'em I'm not coming.


Plurals of abbreviations used to include an apostrophe, but they no longer do.


>>> In this age of streaming music, fewer people seem to be buying CDs.


>>> The graduating class of 2018 at my college included four MAs and seven PhDs.


Possessives and possessive plurals confuse a lot of people. In English, a possessive is normally formed by adding an apostrophe to the end of the singular noun, followed by the letter s ('s). This rule also works for proper nouns, numbers, and names ending in s, x, or z. Some historical names used to be exceptions.


To form the possessive of a plural noun ending in s, add a simple apostrophe to the end of the noun.


If the word is an irregular plural, one not ending in s (e.g., men, women, children), add 's to the plural form. If the singular form ends in s, add 's


>>> The library's books (the books belonging to the library)


>>> All of the libraries' books in our town are catalogued online. (the books in several libraries)


>>> The destruction of the World Trade Towers was 2001's most tragic event. (event belonging to that year)


>>> A woman's rights (the rights of one woman)


>>> Women's rights (the rights of more than one woman)


>>> The werewolf's teeth were bared. (one werewolf)


>>> The werewolves' teeth were bared. (more than one werewolf)


>>> My friend's parents went to the game with us. (the parents of one friend)


>>> All of my friends' parents showed up at the rally. (the parents of all your friends showed up)


>>> My son's friends' parents all attended his graduation ceremony. (one son, several friends)


I've seen writers erroneously write my parent's house (or even my parents house) when meaning the house that both parents live in (the usual case). Only if you have only one parent there would you use the first version. Don't make these mistakes.


A good rule to remember is that if you're showing the possessive of a noun, you NEED an apostrophe in there somewhere. Unfortunately, there are many nuances when it comes to possessives that I don't have time to go into here. My punctuation book covers most of these, and the upcoming 2nd edition will expand on what's in the 1st edition. Of course, the CMOS should be your go-to reference.




Periods used to be common in most abbreviations and acronyms (R.S.V.P., A.W.O.L., B.C., A.D.). With few exceptions, abbreviations and acronyms no longer put periods after each letter (FBI, CIA, CEO). For AWOL and RSVP both forms are still acceptable. B.C. and A.D. generally omit the periods, but including them is not wrong.


When writing a name with initials in it, use a period after each initial, followed by a space. When the name is all initials or the person is referred to by initials, periods are not used unless the individual has personally chosen a particular format. No period follows when the last name is an initial, but when the last name is abbreviated with an initial, a period follows. Examples make this clear:


>>> Franklin D. Roosevelt, J. R. R. Tolkien, FDR, LBJ, JFK, Malcolm X


>>> American rappers Ice-T and LL Cool J


>>> Doctor J. is my personal physician.


>>> His parents always called him Tobias. We called him TJ. Professionally he's T. Jefferson Markham.


>>> Xavier Lewis Stevens, at six five and two hundred and eighty pounds of muscle, got nicknamed XL.


Another common mistake I find is with writing the time of day using a.m. and p.m. You can use either caps or lowercase (A.M. or a.m.), but the periods ARE REQUIRED, and always put a space between these and the time. You don't want a.m. to look like the word "am."


>>> The meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m.


[INCORRECT] 10am, 10 am, 10a.m.




Hyphens give most of us fits. I see writers who don't understand when the hyphen should be used, and I see writers incorrectly use it in place of a dash.


Just so we're clear, the hyphen sits next to the zero key on the keyboard. It can also be found on your numeric keypad (if you have one) in its upper right corner. It's supposed to act as a minus sign in that location.


Here's a bit of trivia for you. In typesetting, the hyphen and minus sign are not the same. The minus sign is slightly longer and sits a bit higher so it aligns with the plus sign. Modern keyboards don't make this distinction, but the codes exist to insert the correct symbol when needed. Here's the difference:


+ - (plus, hyphen)               + − (plus, minus sign)


I'll talk about the dash in a minute, but I did want to point out that technically the minus sign is different from the hyphen, and if you were writing a math textbook, your publisher (or you) would/should be using the correct symbol.


If you think about it, the hyphen shows up in a lot of different places. It's part of the spelling of some words (T-shirt, H-bomb, sister-in-law); it's used to show certain prefixes and suffixes in words; it's used to form certain compound words; it's used to form compound adjectives; it's used in some street addresses, telephone numbers, and people's names. It's also used to show a word spelled out:


>>> I said no, not yes. What part of n-o sounds like y-e-s?


Some of these uses are straightforward. The headaches arise when it comes to knowing when certain compound words are open (two words), closed (one word), or hyphenated. Worse, the English language is in more of a state of flux than ever. New words are being added at an alarming rate, and old words are changing their form. There's no way to keep up.


If that's not bad enough, the form may vary depending on the word's part of speech:


>>> He stayed out all night at the all-night party.


>>> Her dead-end job marked a dead end to her career.


>>> Let's get together this weekend for a long overdue get-together.


Some are just plain inconsistent.


He fell face-first. He landed facedown.


Sometimes the verb is hyphenated while the noun is not, and sometimes it's the opposite. Generally, I've observed that more often the verb form is two words, while the noun and adjective forms are hyphenated or closed.


>>> Don't cover up any of this. We don't need an investigation of a cover-up.


>>> When you grow up, you become a grown-up. (verb not hyphenated)


>>> They suspected the thieves had booby-trapped their hideout and therefore looked carefully for any potential booby traps. (verb hyphenated)


Sometimes both forms are currently acceptable, but that may depend on which dictionary you look them up in. Here are some examples:


>>> counterargument/counter-argument, offline/off-line, time frame/timeframe


On rare occasions, all three forms appear with different parts of speech:


>>> Give me a quick rundown. [NOUN]

>>> My run-down truck still gets me where I'm going. [ADJECTIVE]

>>> The detective decided to run down several leads. [VERB]


In my editing role, I am constantly checking the dictionary. To help speed up my work, I recently started a list of common compound words I've run across. The list has rapidly grown to over four two-column pages. Referring to it instead of a dictionary saves me some time.


You can download this list as a .doc file on my blog at writewell.ricktaubold.com under the RESOURCES tab at the top right. I update it periodically on the site and put the revision date at the top. Unless you have a photographic memory (which I do not), then you'll find the list rather useful.


NOTE: Your primary authority should always be the Merriam-Webster dictionary. If that one doesn't have the word you're looking for, you can resort to another. Or if another shows an alternative, you can choose. You should avoid relying on any dictionaries on your bookshelf because they're almost certainly out of date. I own the gigantic Webster's Third International Dictionary, unabridged (1981). Occasionally I still refer to it because it contains things I can't find in the free online version unless I purchase a yearly subscription to that.


The CMOS has a wonderful set of tables regarding hyphenation and compound words, and these are perhaps the only "rules" one can follow when it comes to hyphenation. While they're extensive tables, they only cover groups of words and miss the many exceptions. If you don't own the CMOS, these hyphenation tables can be found online for free. Google "Chicago manual of style hyphenation table" to find the document. Here's one reference where you can print it out as a .pdf file:






When two or more words (nouns, adjectives, verbs) are combined to form a single adjective description, the words are hyphenated if used BEFORE the noun being described but not if used after it.


>>> propeller-driven aircraft, free-standing bookcase, black-and-white poster, a come-as-you-are party, a thirty-five-year-old man, a six-foot-tall fence


>>> The aircraft is propeller driven. The fence is six foot tall. The party was billed as come as you are. (But we might want to put "come as you are" in quotes for clarity: The party was billed as "come as you are.")


It's important to hyphenate these properly. Look carefully at the last two examples. I've seen the writers leave out some of these hyphens. In the case of the age of the man, ALL of the words create a single adjective. He's not an old man who's thirty-five (a thirty-five-year old man) or a thirty-five year-old man. The last one makes no sense, but the previous one might in a setting where 35 years is considered old. In the fence description, omitting the last hyphen (a six-foot tall fence) could mean a tall fence that's six feet long, not six feet high. This illustrates the need for careful punctuation to avoid such ambiguities.


While I'm here, let me remind you that we do NOT hyphenate -ly adverbs. However, not all -ly words are adverbs.


>> That's a beautifully painted picture of a friendly-looking dog with his highly intelligent owner.


NOTE: We hyphenate "looking" in such cases (a decrepit-looking house)


Make sure you know the difference between adjectives and adverbs (another reason why knowing the grammar is important for writers). If you can put the word before a noun and it makes sense, then it's an adjective: friendly (adjective); beautifully (adverb); highly (adverb). You can't have a "highly owner" or a "beautifully poem."


Consider the following:


>>> [CONFUSING] The storm caused two hour long delays for most flights. (How many delays and how long were they?)


>>> The storm caused two, hour-long delays. (2 delays of 1 hour each)


>>> The storm caused two-hour-long delays. (multiple delays, each two hours long)


This brings us to the question of how many words we should hyphenate when forming a single adjective. A rule of thumb is no more than 3-5 words, as long as the word combination is relatively short. The alternative is to put the words in quotes. One determiner is what we're looking at. When we're referring to wording on a sign as the descriptor, then quotes may look better even if the word count is small.


>>> Last night I had this weird dream where I was kidnapped and injected with turn-my-brain-to-mush drugs.


>>> She gave us a worst-case-scenario report.


>>> When I suggested she should invest her inheritance for later needs rather than spend it on extravagances now, I was promptly subjected to a "who put you in charge of my life" speech.


>>> We saw a lot of "Vote for Smith" signs in front yards yesterday.


>>> Brad loves to show off his "I'm not sure how many problems I have because math is one of them" T-shirt. (way too long to hyphenate)


>>> When I go anywhere with Brad, I always wear my "I'm with Stupid" T-shirt because he always does something stupid, in addition to wearing his T-shirt. One time he put it on backwards, and I didn't have the heart to tell him.


And how many of you noticed that "T-shirt" is always spelled with a capital T, not a lowercase one as I often see done?




In all types of writing the colon is used to indicate that a list or explanation follows. In fiction, it serves these purposes as well, but it can also show a logical consequence.


When using the colon in sentences to introduce something, it should follow a complete sentence. Do not use a colon if one or more items in the list it is introducing are required to complete the sentence.


>>> I had a very short list of to-do things tomorrow: wake up early, get my car washed, blow off the rest of the day playing golf.


>>> [INCORRECT] I had a short list of to-do things tomorrow that included: waking up early, getting my car washed, blowing off the rest of the day playing golf. (The list completes the sentence, so do not use a colon.)


>>> She turned around: full dark hair, wonderfully prominent cheekbones on a tanned face, captivating brown eyes.


>>> Alice finally understood why her solution was not working: she'd used the wrong approach to the problem.


When a full sentence follows the colon (as above), you can optionally capitalize the first word. Not all authorities agree on this, but you have flexibility here to decide what looks best in the situation. I generally only capitalize the sentence following if it's more than a few words long.


>>> Everyone knows the famous first line from Hamlet's soliloquy: "To be or not to be." (capitalize because it's a quotation)


>>> Here's how I see it happening: we lie and deny being there. (short sentence)


>>> Here's how he saw it happening: He could lie and tell them he found the mysterious, black stone outside the cave, or he could tell the truth and find himself explaining things he didn't want to explain. (long sentence)


It's acceptable to put the list first, and in that case the complete sentence follows the colon.


>>> Wake up early, get my car washed, blow off the rest of the day playing golf: I had a very short list of to-do things tomorrow. (You could also use a dash instead of the colon, which I'll discuss next.


You may use a colon to introduce an appositive, which is a fancy term for a parenthetical word or phrase that further describes a noun.


>>> His new sports car, a Ferrari, cost more than my yearly salary. (where "a Ferrari" is the appositive)


And here's where you might use a colon to introduce that appositive.


>>> Sam couldn't wait to show off his latest automobile purchase. To add to the drama, he blindfolded me before he led me outside. I expected something expensive, like a Corvette, but when he removed the blindfold, I beheld a thing of true beauty: a Ferrari.


No other piece of punctuation would have the dramatic pause and effect that the colon provides in this case.


Note that the colon and semicolon perform almost opposite functions, despite their similar appearance. The semicolon joins, while the colon separates or sets off.




How writers misuse and misunderstand the dash is one of my pet peeves. I see two frequent errors: using a hyphen instead of a dash, and putting spaces around the dash (or hyphen). Less often I see writers using two (or more) hyphens to indicate a dash. In the days of the typewriter, two hyphens indicated a dash, but you should NOT use more than two. You can set MS Word to automatically replace two hyphens with a dash, but this doesn't always work, leaving you with dashes in some spots and the two hyphens in others. It's best to insert the dash directly, and I'll show you how in a moment.


There are two types of dashes that writers need to be aware of: the em dash and the en dash. When we refer to dash, the em dash is normally what we mean. The en dash is shorter, and I'll point out its proper use as well.


em dash: —     en dash: –     hyphen: -


Originally, in typesetting, the em dash was supposed to be the width of the letter m. Unfortunately, that's not always the case in the various fonts on the computer, and the dash comes out at different lengths.


I'm using the Times New Roman font for this presentation, but here is the em dash in several common fonts with the corresponding capital M below it:


Times Roman       —


Georgia                —


Arial                     —


Courier New  —



I think Arial and Times New Roman are the same length and longer than the M. Only the dash in Courier New seems to be the width of the M.


So, how do we use the dash? Think of it as a very strong comma, and it should be used when you want to set off a word, phrase, or clause. It's also an alternative to the use of parentheses. The choice depends on the kind of emphasis you want, commas being the weakest, parentheses stronger, and the dash being the strongest.


I advise using parentheses only if you have used them elsewhere in the document for a similar purpose. Most of the time in fiction we avoid the use of parentheses unless they serve a humorous context. When using the dash to set off a word or words, follow the same rules as for commas in that situation.


However, NEVER put a space before or after a dash.


>>> My boss, the esteemed Dr. Ferraro, has been pissed off lately at his grad students who—through no fault of theirs—have not produced anything he can publish.


>>> My boss (the esteemed Dr. Ferraro) has been pissed off lately at his grad students who—through no fault of theirs—have not produced anything he can publish.


>>> My boss—the esteemed Dr. Ferraro—has been pissed off lately at his grad students who, through no fault of theirs, have not produced anything he can publish.


We generally do not use the dash between full sentences, and we usually do not capitalize after a dash unless what follows is a quote or word that should be capitalized.


>>> A lot of people can quote the beginning of Hamlet's famous soliloquy—To be or not to be—but few can quote much beyond that.


Dashes can be used in longer, comma-cluttered sentences to clean things up, but remember that the dash is a stronger mark than the comma and should be used only when a stronger separation is required. Dashes should also be used somewhat sparingly or else they lose their effect.


Now, I promised to mention the en dash. Unlike the em dash, the en dash has the very specific use of indicating ranges of numbers. The hyphen is often used, and is generally accepted, in those cases, but the en dash is really the correct punctuation to use. The examples below all use the en dash.


>>> He attended college 1980–1984.


>>> Please read pages 130–154 for tomorrow.


>>> Mike's birthday party is Friday 8:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m. at Jake's Pub.


>>> I'll be on vacation June 5–June 10.


>>> The vote was 34–16 in favor of the resolution.


>>> The final score was 4–3.


Now, I'm sure everyone wants to know how to insert these particular dashes from the keyboard. On a standard PC keyboard that has a numeric keypad, the em dash is inserted by holding CTL and ALT, then pressing the MINUS key on the numeric keypad. The MINUS key at the top of the keyboard won't work.


For the en dash, hold only the CTL key and press the MINUS key.


If you have a laptop without a numeric keypad, you can insert the appropriate Unicode for each. For the em dash, type the numbers 2014, then immediately hold the ALT key and press X, then release. For the en dash the code is 2013.


Mac users hold the SHIFT and OPTION keys and press the MINUS key for an em dash. For the en dash, hold just the OPTION key and press the MINUS key.




The ellipsis (three—and only three—spaced periods in a row, with a space before and after the three periods) was originally used to denote an omission in quoted material. By extension, the ellipsis is used to show a trailing off in thoughts or speech.


While the recommended form of the ellipsis is three SPACED periods, the spaces can lead to the ellipsis points being split at the end of a line. To avoid this, one should omit the spaces between the dots. But this leaves the possibility that the three ellipsis points can still be pushed to the start of the next line, and this tends to look weird. It's advisable to put a space AFTER the three dots to avoid joining two words. An ellipsis with no space after it prevents the words from wrapping to the next line. Here are some examples.


>>> Tim wanted us to understand his problem. "If that became known, it would . . . damage my reputation." [VERY UNPROFESSIONAL LOOKING]


Not putting a space after the ellipsis leaves the first line too short, and when the text is fully justified, you end up with widely spaced words that look just as unprofessional.


>>> Tim wanted us to understand his problem. "If that became known, it would...damage my reputation." [NO SPACE AFTER THE ELLIPSIS]


>>> Tim wanted us to understand his problem. "If that became known, it would... damage my reputation." [SPACE AFTER LETS IT WRAP PROPERLY]


>>> Tim wanted us to understand his problem. "If that became known, it would... damage my reputation." [AND PERFECT EVEN WHEN JUSTIFIED]


Another way around some of these problems is to use the single ellipsis symbol (hold CTL-ALT and press the PERIOD key, but even then you can end up with a floating ellipsis. The example below uses the ellipsis symbol with a space before and after it.


>>> Tim wanted us to understand his problem.  "If that became known, it would … damage my reputation." [NOT THE BEST LOOK]


With that out of the way, let's deal with how and when to use the ellipsis and how it differs from the dash to show interrupted speech.


Here's the best advice on which punctuation to use in dialogue:


[EM DASH = interruption by another speaker or outside event]

[ELLIPSIS = interruption or hesitation by the one speaking]


And some illustrative examples:


"Where's J?" Drake asked Ben.


"In the bedroom... Crying, I think."


"What's wrong?" Adrian asked.


Ben shut his eyes. "Maybe you can talk to him. He won't listen to me."


Adrian headed to Jonathan's room. "Little bro?"


Jonathan had his face buried in the pillow. "M-my mom... h-hates me."


Adrian sat on the bed and put his hand on Jonathan's back. "No, she doesn't."


"Sh-she th-thinks... I'm... a... m-m-monster."



Jonathan's halting speech is done with ellipses to show pauses and hesitations (not interruptions), while his stuttered words are done with hyphens because he's not pausing deliberately there.


Consider a more complex passage where we use ellipses for dropped, overheard dialogue and the dash to show interruption of that dialogue. The italics indicate the sound and direct thoughts.



Isaac had hoped to learn who was behind the theft and when they expected the buyer to show up, but the men were too far away and the noises in the warehouse made it difficult to hear.


"... said... he'd be here at... s—" Beep-beep-beep "thirty with our money."


Damn pallet trucks! He hadn't heard the hour. It was 6:20 now. If their contact was coming in ten minutes, his own men wouldn't be here in time. If it was 7:30...


One thing I didn't cover under the hyphen is its use for stuttered speech. Let's take a quick look at part of a previous passage.



Adrian headed to Jonathan's room. "Little bro?"


Jonathan had his face buried in the pillow. "M-my mom... h-hates me."


Adrian sat on the bed and put his hand on Jonathan's back. "No, she doesn't."


"Sh-she th-thinks... I'm... a... m-m-monster."



Notice that some of the stuttering is shown by hyphenating a single letter, but in the last line I used two letters. Why did I do that instead of the following?


>>> "S-she t-thinks... I'm... a... m-m-monster."


If you think about the sounds, "she" doesn't begin with an "s" sound but with the "sh" sound, and the same for "think." The original way accurately shows how the words are actually spoken. This applies for "wh" words as well as for any that begin with a diphthong (two letters together that form one sound).


I know that some of these things are small points, but paying attention to such nuances will make your prose smoother and tell your readers that you know what you're doing. And that can help ensure future sales.






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