How to punctuate

I’m an American and this applies to American English.

If you didn’t learn punctuation in school, you will need to teach yourself punctuation. This may help.

First, capitalize the first letter in every sentence. Your phone may do that for you, but your writing program, if it’s worth its salt, won’t. There are artistic writers who don’t do this and that’s fine. That’s them. Artistic writers are wonderful and they’re treasures, but they sure as fuck don’t make much money when they’re alive. If you want to write professionally, for money, capitalize that letter.

Capitalizing your first letter is important because it signals to readers that a new sentence is starting.

End each sentence with a period, called a ‘full stop’ in British English. Sometimes end sentences with a question mark. Rarely (maybe once or twice per book) end a sentence with an exclamation point. Seriously. Do not use exclamation points. Not in narration–let me feel the excitement via word choice. Not in dialogue–if you’re writing your dialogue well and using the right actions surrounding it, you won’t need an exclamation point.

Example:

“Let’s go to the mall!” Jennifer said. “My game is in!”

This can become

Jennifer tossed her backpack over her shoulder and grinned at Marcy. Today was expansion release day for their favorite game, Instant Spoils: The Dread Pirate’s Booty Four.* “Let’s go to the mall. Right now. Before school’s out, before everyone else gets there.”

The excitement should be generated through words, not punctuation. The rule of thumb I’d heard–and I fully agree with it–is that you should include no more than 2-3 exclamation points per novel. Otherwise you or your characters sound manic, melodramatic, and annoying. Use them sparingly, and they will carry quite an impact. Use them flagrantly, and you’ll wonder why people accuse you of writing purple prose.

About those question marks. Most people know you put a question mark after a sentence that starts with who, what, where, when, why, how, or if. Other words that start questions are does, can, may, should, will, is/are, and have.

You do not use a question mark if those words are in the middle of the sentence. “She asked me if I’d gone shopping” is not a question. It’s a statement.

You do use a question mark even if the question is delivered in a flat tone of voice. (Many people use question marks if, in their head, the sentence ends with a pitch lift.) If it’s a question and not a statement, use a question mark.

Example:

He threw his napkin onto his place, obscuring the half-eaten lobster tail. “Do you want to marry me or not?”

She sighed and played with her fork.

“You don’t want to marry me.”

Now that last sentence, if ended with a period, is a declaration. He knows she doesn’t want to marry him and that’s it. We could end it with a question mark, at which point it would become a question. “You don’t want to marry me?” invites her to answer, to give a reason, and subtly sounds different.

Other kinds of punctuation in English include the following: colon, semi-colon, comma, dash, hyphen, brackets, braces, parentheses, apostrophes, quote marks, and the ellipsis.

Colons are for lists. When you write a list, you separate the things in the list with a semi-colon. It would look like this.

“Go to the store and get me the following: hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.”

Note the commas in the sub-list of cheeses. The reason you use a semi-colon for a list is to differentiate those things from anything you need to sub-list. The list is meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mustard. The sublist is cheddar, swiss, and provolone. If you put all that together, then you use commas for the cheeses, because they’re all versions of the same thing, and you use semi-colons for the items that are significantly different from one another.

Semi-colons are also used to connect independent clauses. You can use it (sparingly) in lieu of a period. Periods scan better.

She didn’t know why he hated her so much; all she’d done was try to please him.

Okay, but it works just as well with a period.

Hyphens are used to create compound terms such as ‘well-known,’ ‘part-time,’ or ‘mix-up.’

Dashes come in two flavors: the en-dash (the width of an ‘n’) and the em-dash (width of an ‘m’). The en-dash is used to indicate ranges, connections, or differentiations. The em-dash is used to provide strong emphasis and can be used in lieu of a comma, colon, or pair of parentheses when those don’t hit your point hard enough. Overuse of em-dashes will make your writing seem melodramatic. Example of properly-used em-dash:

“WWII was composed of two wars: the Pacific War, which ran from 1931-1945, and the European war, which ran from 1939-1945. Once the Japanese signed a treaty with the Germans, they became one war–the war we know of as WWII.”

Sometimes you put spaces before and after em- and en-dashes, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on style — the AP stylebook says to put spaces, but MLA says there should be no spaces. This is why you see no spaces in novels, but you do see spaces in newspaper articles.

You also use em-dashes to indicate interruption. You can do that as per the examples below:

He glared at her. “What do you mean, I don’t–“

Her expression might have been a smile on anyone else’s face. “You didn’t ever satisfy me”–her gun moved to point at him instead of the server–“and now I want out of our arrangement. With all the diamonds, Scott. Every. Last. One.”

Note that when dialogue is interrupted and the speaker is finished, you put the em-dash within the quote, but when the dialogue is interrupted by action and the speaker is still speaking, you put the em-dash outside of the quote.

Parentheses () are for examples or qualifying marks, and could be theoretically removed from the sentence without affecting it whatsoever. You can also replace them with commas. If you refer to the Dashes paragraph above, you can see an example of parenthesis use. These are called ‘brackets’ in British English.

If you’re using parentheses, other punctuation almost always goes outside the closing parenthesis. Example:

After raising the hood of his car (and wiping his hands on his jeans), Billy checked the oil.

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence unattached to another sentence, put the punctuation within the end parenthesis.

Billy usually did his own oil changes. (He liked to get dirty.)

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence and is enclosed within another complete sentence, do not use a period in the parenthetical sentence. However, you can use other closing punctuation within parentheses.

I sent her the invitation, but (she’s far too busy today) of course she won’t come.

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any?) and ate it entirely (the schmuck!).

Amusingly enough, you can add question marks and exclamation points to parenthetical sentences like the ones in the chocolate example. You don’t have to, and you probably shouldn’t in general, but if it works with your narrative or character’s voice, then it’s fine. So you could have the following:

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any!?) and ate it entirely (the schmuck).

Notice, however, that the period is still at the end of the sentence because the period ends the sentence (and should end almost every single sentence you write). <– note the parenthetical clause at the end, with the closing parenthesis and the period.

Brackets [] clarify meaning or introduce technical information. “You [Jon Snow] know nothing.” I’d use a bracket if I was quoting something precisely and needed to introduce information that the reader would need to understand the material. They are almost never used in fiction writing but are widely used in the sciences and social sciences, and in journalism. I might also write “I [Martin Luther King, Jr.] have a dream.” I’m quoting him directly, but in this context it’s very useful to add his name so you can get the reference. These are called square brackets in British English.

Braces {} are mostly used in computer programming and math. I never use them in any kind of writing that I do.

Ellipses (sing. ellipsis) are series of three to four period-like dots. They can be used a number of ways, but mostly should never, ever, ever be used in fiction writing except in dialogue. They’re spaced in a particular way and your computer will have a keyboard shortcut for them and/or will automatically space them. WordPress doesn’t do automatic spacing or format em-dashes properly, which is why my punctuation marks look a little ‘off.’

Some people use them to indicate a voice that is trailing off.

She twisted her napkin between her fingers. “Well, if you want to…”

There you use the three dot ellipsis because the sentence isn’t finishing, but there is other punctuation after. In the same example you could use ellipsis and end with a question mark, depending on if it’s a statement or a question, but generally with questions it’s better to just use the question mark. You can also use an ellipsis to indicate a space, or hesitation, in grammatically correct dialogue.

“But…I thought you loved me!”

Note the lack of space before and after the ellipsis.

If you routinely use ellipses in your non-dialogue writing, you will look wishy-washy and amateur. Use a period. Stand by your statement. However, if you want your character to look wishy-washy, the occasional well-placed ellipsis will do that. Just please try not to use ellipses more than a couple times in a long chapter because it’s also somewhat jarring to readers.

In academic writing you use ellipses for one reason only–to indicate text that has been removed from a quote because you don’t need it, without rewriting the original sentence and opening yourself to charges of misrepresentation or plagiarism. For example, say I’m writing a newspaper article. A man is telling me about a chef he knows. I need to quote him directly, but we don’t need all of his words. I’d do the following:

Original quote: “She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines, all examples of citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Elliptical quote: “She bought…citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

The four dot ellipsis is used to indicate that the sentence is over. Example:

“She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines…. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Or I could use two three-dot ellipses to join the two sentences.

“She bought…citrus fruits…for her latest pastry recipe.”

Again, you use that in academic writing or journalism only, where it’s understood that you are abridging a quote, not writing in a hesitant tone of voice.

Quotation marks are so much fun! In America, dialogue is set off with double-quotes, whereas in Britain it’s set off in single-quotes (and sometimes not at all) which can make it easy to tell the nationality of the author. We also use double-quotes when we quote someone else’s speech or writing.

Single-quotes in America are used to indicate something is unusual or special about the word, or to set the word apart for some reason, or to indicate that someone who is speaking is quoting someone else. Here is an example of the last:

I said to my colleague, Mr. Smith, “Brian told me that you said, ‘there is absolutely, definitely no school on Friday.’ Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?”

The material set off in the single quotes is what Brian said, word for word, to me and I’m telling Mr. Smith that.

Most punctuation is set inside the quotation marks in America, with the exception of question and exclamation marks. Here are examples and reasons.

“Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?” –> Speaker A is asking Speaker B (you) a direct question. Question mark goes within the quotes.

Had she really said “I don’t love you any more”? I reeled in my seat, clutching for my glass of water. –> Speaker A (I) is thinking about something Speaker B (she) said to him directly. Question mark goes outside the quotes, because Speaker A is questioning the statement he’d heard.

“He said to me, ‘Are you sure you want this game?'” –> Speaker A (me) is relating to Speaker B about what Speaker C (he) has asked. Question mark goes inside the double and single quote marks.

“I love the Dread Pirate booty* series!” He grinned at Jennifer from behind the counter as he rang up her purchase. –> Speaker A (I/he) is telling Speaker B (Jennifer) about something he’s emphatic about. Exclamation point goes within the quotes.

“I said to him, ‘Of course I want that game!’ It’s the hottest game of the year.” –> Speaker A (I) is telling Speaker B (the listener) about something she emphasized to Speaker C (him); the exclamation point goes within the single-quote for that reason.

I couldn’t believe she cancelled our date in favor of watching “When Harry Met Sally”! Wasn’t a real romantic relationship better than a movie about one? –> Speaker A (I) is thinking to himself, and the quotes are around a movie title. Since “When Harry Met Sally” has no punctuation, the exclamation point goes on the outside of the quotes.

The question mark or exclamation point go on the inside of the dialogue’s quotation marks when the person speaking is asking a question.

But what about periods and commas within quotes? Many, many people screw this one up, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn. When you write dialogue, you end the sentence with a period if you start a new sentence or include an action beat right after it. You end it with a comma if you use a dialogue tag.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park,” Jesse whispered, his lips swollen. He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. <– example of comma use because ‘Jessie whispered’ is a dialogue tag. In this case I added a clause after the dialogue tag to indicate why he was whispering, and added another sentence after.

Jesse whispered through swollen lips. “She beat me up as I ran through the park.” He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. –> Here the same idea is written as two sentences with a dialogue tag (whispered). Note how the dialogue ends in a period.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park.” Jesse sank into the chair, his lips swollen, his face a mass of bruised misery. –> Note the lack of a comma due to the lack of dialogue tag. If there’s no dialogue tag, there’s no need for a comma.

British English punctuates dialogue differently.

Apostrophes are the despair of many people. An apostrophe is used for many reasons:

  • To indicate omission of letters from words (aka ‘contractions’). Example: Cannot becomes can’t.
    • It’s means ‘it is.’ “It’s cold outside.”
  • To indicate possession (possessive case). That’s the cat’s favorite box, or Jerry’s remote control car is pink and purple.
    • Its indicates possession, just like ‘his’ and ‘hers’ does. That’s its favorite box, or I have a smartphone. My thumbs are too big for its keyboard.
  • To pluralize lower-case letters. There were too many s’s in that word.

What about words that end in -s? Despite what your English teacher may have taught you, there’s no hard and fast rule. Be consistent, and don’t stress about it too much. If you’re trad-publishing and your editor wants you to do it a particular way, do it that way. Publishing houses have style sheets, too, and they want you to ‘fit’ their punctuation style. That said, if you’re looking for examples, go here.

That said, you should never, ever put the apostrophe before the terminal -s. This is not a rule you ever get to break, period. People get mad about that stuff, as per the examples below.

  • That’s Thoma’s book. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed Thomas’s name to Thoma.
  • The Jone’s family. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed the last name ‘Jones’ to ‘Jone.’

In those cases, you either don’t use an apostrophe, or you put it after the ‘s.’

And now for the almighty comma.

Do not put a comma wherever you breathe. If someone told you to do that, they were wrong. People breathe at different rates, and punctuation isn’t dependent on your lung capacity. In musical scores there will occasionally be an apostrophe above the staff. You breathe at the apostrophe. But otherwise there is no punctuation that correlates with breathing.

Commas are primarily used to separate clauses, or ideas, within a sentence. They can become rather complex, and, frankly, comma usage deserves its own article. Here are some real basics.

  • Use a comma to separate lists within a sentence if none of the items in the list requires commas itself. Her dress was green, red, and yellow. If any of the items in your list require commas themselves, use the semi-colon instead. …hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.
  • Use a comma and conjunction to join two sentences or independent clauses together. They went to the store, and then they went home. Generally you want to use periods for that sort of thing, but if all of your sentences in a particular paragraph are the same length, you can vary sentence length by joining two sentences this way. Be careful about overdoing it.
    • Don’t use a comma if the conjunction is joining two adverbs or adjectives that both modify the subject noun. In other words I type fast and well is correct because both fast and well describe how I type. My cat is pretty, and clumsy is wrong because both pretty and clumsy describe my cat. (Seriously. I’ve seen her miss basic jumps.) This should be easy to identify because and well or and clumsy aren’t sentences or independent clauses.
  • Use it to offset unnecessary information (clauses or words). My friend, John, bought that house. I ran, my feet aching, to work today. 
  • Use it after an introductory phrase (watch for dangling modifiers!). Grabbing her remote, Jennifer flicked on the television.
  • Use it with question tags or emphasis words. I know, right? The sunset is pretty, isn’t it?
  • Use it to set off dates. I wrote this on August 8, 2019, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
  • DON’T use a comma to separate articles (a, an, the) from nouns. Lots of people do this! She took the, poison is incorrect. Don’t even do it in dialogue to express a hitch in speech. Use an ellipsis or dash for that. You can, however, use a comma to separate two articles in dialogue to express emphasis or hesitation. “She took the, the poison” is okay, especially if I want to show that the speaker is amazed or startled.

There’s lots more on commas. You can find as many examples as your heart desires by visiting grammarly.

I used the following resources to write this page: Grammarly, The Punctuation Guide, GrammarBook, Your Dictionary, Grammar Girl (via Quick and Dirty Tips), Purdue OWL, Literary Devices, and Get It Write. I also recommend the books The Transitive Vampire (and other books by Karen Elizabeth Gordon); Eats, Shoots, and Leaves; and Woe Is I. I receive no kickbacks for links to books or websites.

*This game was created by Patricia Briggs and is featured in her Mercy Thompson series.

Leave a Reply