A Practical Reference For When You’re stuck
Punctuation can be the bane of a writer’s existence. It seems straightforward. You use a period at the end of a sentence or a question mark at the end of a question. If you’re excited you use an exclamation point.
It’s not until you’re nose deep into your writing that you realize, it’s not as simple as what goes at the end of a sentence. Let’s take a look at a few situations that might stall our writing and make us think.
Proper Use of Quotation Marks
If you use opening quotation marks, you must also use closing quotation marks.
If you’re not quoting someone or writing dialogue, don’t use quotation marks.
When it comes time to use them, decide if you’re going to use single (‘…’)or double (“…”)quotation marks. It’s a matter of preference (yours or your publisher’s) and regional style. American English tends to prefer “ quotes for dialogue and ‘ for a quote within a quote, while the opposite is true for Canadian and European English.
Whichever you choose, know that you’ll use the other kind for a quote within a quote. So if you frame your dialogue with double quotation marks, you’ll use single quotation marks when quoting another person in your dialogue.
“Archie told me the teacher said, ‘we have a history quiz tomorrow,’ so we need to do our homework tonight,” Nancy said.
Some like to use either set of quotation marks to emphasize a word, but this causes confusion. It’s better to use italics for emphasis.
Another interesting situation arises when you’re writing a monologue for a character. Most dialogue runs three lines at most, but if the dialogue runs on and requires paragraphs, each paragraph they speak will have beginning quotation marks (“) but you’ll only use the ending quotation (”)marks when they stop speaking.
“Congratulations everybody. You may know me as the captain of the football team, but today I speak to you as the head boy and valedictorian. We’ve worked hard, played hard, and all we have to show for it are these funny hats and a scroll with our name on it. I think they should’ve given us a kegger instead.
“We could use a good party, but I guess they want us to be serious now that we’ve graduated. Besides, there’s a party at Jimmy’s later. I know I’m going to be there, I hope you are too. Live free and party hard fellow grads! Class dismissed!”
Even if this speech went on for several more paragraphs, the start of each would have quotation marks at the start of the paragraph, and none at the end, until he was finished speaking.
Another issue people have is remembering if the punctuation stays inside or outside the quotation marks. Think of the quotation marks like an elastic band holding the dialogue line together. Most punctuation stays inside the quotation marks, (unless it’s a dash, colon, or semi-colon, then it stays out of the quotation mark.)
“I think it’s brilliant that everyone is graduating this year.”
“I think it’s brilliant that everyone is graduating this year!”
“Do you think we’ll graduate this year?”
Sometimes we’re not sure how to combine capitalization and quotation marks. If you’re quoting an entire quote or sentence, start with a capital letter, even if the quote appears in the middle of the sentence or dialogue line. If you’re quoting a fragment, you don’t have to start with a capital.
William told me, “There is no way we’ll find those kids in time.”
My brother called him, “obnoxious, petulant, and a waste of skin.”
Punctuation stays inside quotation marks. If there is a dialogue attribution tag, the rule stays the same, no matter at which point the dialogue tag is, start, middle, or end.
“Hey there,” said the alien. “Take me to your leader.”
The alien said, “Hey there, take me to your leader.”
“Hey there. Take me to your leader,” the alien said.
“Hey there. Take me to your leader?” The alien asked.
The Oxford Comma — Using it, or not.
Oxford commas are used to separate items in a list contained within a sentence or dialogue line. Canadians, British and other Europeans tend to use the Oxford Comma like the example below.
His favorite drinks are diet coke, coffee, whisky, and Nestle’s strawberry Quik.
American English tends to drop the comma after the last item in the list, like this:
His favorite drinks are diet coke, coffee, whisky and Nestle’s strawberry Quik.
Either way is acceptable, it’s just preference, but it’s important to be consistent with what you choose to use.
Semi-Colon and Colon Use
There’s some confusion about how to use these punctuation marks properly.
A semi-colon is used to join two related but separate statements.
I can’t wait to go on March break; I’m worn out from school.
A colon indicates a list within a sentence, especially one with more than three items. There’s no need for the first item to be capitalized unless it’s a proper noun.
I need to get: a skirt, chocolate bars, tissue paper, and a notebook.
A colon can also indicate a statement or announcement.
The Maitre d’ made an announcement: There is a gas leak and you all need to leave the restaurant immediately.
If a quote has more than two sentences, use a colon.
On the first day of school, my mom told me: “Pay attention. Be on time. Study hard and obey the teacher.”
Proper Use of Uncommon Punctuation Marks
A similar rule as above exists for the use of punctuation and parentheses. If there are parentheses in a sentence, it depends on what is inside the parentheses. If it’s a fragment of a sentence, the ending punctuation stays outside of the parenthesis.
Joshua adores candy bars (and chips).
Can John bring the bread and milk (immediately)?
If it’s a complete sentence inside the parentheses, the punctuation goes inside.
Bring beer. (Joey loves it!)
Take flowers to Cindy. (Roses are her favorites.)
Dashes, hyphens, and ellipsis are other punctuation marks that can sometimes cause issues.
When using ellipsis, use only three dots. They can either have a space between them or not. I prefer not to have spaces between each period. I like… rather than . . .
Using ellipsis indicates someone’s words are trailing off.
Greta cleared her throat. “Mike, we need to talk…”
Dashes are used when someone is interrupted.
Mike frowned. “So talk, I haven’t got all — ”
“I love you!” Greta cut him off.
Mike softened. “You do? I thought you were breaking up with me…”
A hyphen is used to combine two things into one and the result is sometimes referred to as a compound word.
word-of-mouth or brother-in-law or self-esteem
Another good tip to keep in mind is that every time there is a new speaker talking, start a new paragraph for them.
“Howdy,” Fred said. “Working hard, or hardly working?”
Barney chuckled and leaned on his broom handle. “What do you think?”
An apostrophe together with an ‘s’ means ownership.
The cat’s food. (or if there is more than one cat,) the cats’ food.
Sometimes there is confusion if a name or noun ends with an ‘s.’
Ross’s lunch is just as acceptable as Ross’ lunch. It depends on your preference. Just be consistent.
I’m a bit odd about this rule. If I’m talking about a guy named Ross, I’ll use Ross’s lunch, but if I’m talking about people whose last name is Ross, then I’ll use the Ross’ lunch.
When contracting phrases like ‘it is,’ ‘are not,’ or ‘have not’ an apostrophe is used to make up for the missing letters, so you get, it’s, aren’t and haven’t.
Clear as mud huh?
The rules of punctuation and understanding how to use them helps the clarity of our writing so we can deliver our message as accurately as possible.
We’ve covered a few of the odd rules that strike us as we’re writing along. There are a few rules to remember, but the most important one is, no matter what form you choose, be consistent.
Hopefully reviewing these punctuation rules will keep us from stalling the next time we have a passage with some unusual punctuation needs.