The Finer Points of Punctuation

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Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance and effect of proper punctuation is to imagine reading a piece of writing without it. Supposing you were to read this entire article – all 900 words of it – with absolutely no punctuation. Not just the obvious periods and commas, but no colons, dashes, exclamation marks or question marks.

Punctuation hasn’t always been a part of writing. It evolved over time, as the printing process itself evolved. Prior to the development of printing, punctuation was almost non-existent and when William Caxton first printed books in English, he used three basic punctuation devices, mainly to indicate pauses and sentence endings.

Throughout the 17th century, more punctuation was devised, the most recent being the quotation marks. Eventually we had punctuation as we know it today, consisting of at least a dozen different punctuation devices (depending on your definition) – although some people would have difficulty naming all of them.

A book, article or essay can be well researched and written, but without the correct use of grammar and punctuation, a piece of writing can fail. The well-known book title “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” makes the point well – in this case, a single comma makes all the difference to the meaning.

Most of us who write fiction – or anything else – understand the basics of when to use punctuation, such as the comma, period and question mark. Often, even experienced writers can have trouble determining when to use the dash, the apostrophe, the semi-colon and the exclamation mark.

The semi-colon and the colon can both be tricky to use correctly. A semi-colon indicates a natural pause in a sentence that is greater than a comma, but not as firm as the period. An example might be this sentence; it’s also an example of the use of the apostrophe.

A scenario where you would use the colon is to introduce a list or to introduce a character’s speech. A good writer needs to have the following skills: patience, dedication, the ability to research accurately and perhaps a thick skin.

The dash can be used effectively to emphasize a point, or to indicate a sudden change in the focus of a sentence such as the following one. I have to admit I have not written anything worthwhile for many years, but enough about me – how is your new book coming along?

Two dashes are used almost like parenthesis in that they enclose something that is separate from the rest of the sentence. I have lived for many years in London – although I prefer Paris – and know the city just about as well as anybody can.

The dash can also serve as a neat device for logically tying up a series of connected points. The book I just read had an interesting plot, strong characters, good descriptive writing and an unexpected twist at the end – I really enjoyed it. The dash summarizes the points made, without having to start another sentence. However, too many dashes can make a piece of writing seem less formal.

The exclamation mark is an example of punctuation that is sometimes overused! It isn’t necessary to use exclamation marks all the time! Be sparing with them! Although a plethora of exclamation marks can admittedly make a dull passage in fiction seem that little bit more interesting.

An exclamation mark should be used to indicate a strong emotion, such as surprise (I’m going to be a father!) and it’s often used in fiction dialogue to indicate somebody raising their voice or arguing. And if your character is insulting another person, the exclamation mark also gets the point across well.

The apostrophe is a small thing, but it can cause big problems. The overworked apostrophe can have several uses – one of which is to take the place of a letter that is missing. If I had written “to take the place of a letter that’s missing” the meaning would have been the same.

Another common use of the apostrophe is when it is used to designate possession. Most of the time, an apostrophe plus the letter s will suffice. An example would be – I met my friends last night at Michael’s party – in other words, the party belongs to Michael.

The tricky part happens when the possessive noun ends in the letter s. Sherlock Holmes’ house was at 221b Baker Street, London. In this case you put the apostrophe after the letter s, rather than before.

The question mark. Surely the question mark is one of the easiest pieces of punctuation to use correctly? Apart from obviously putting it at the end of a question, it can also be used to turn a statement into a question, as in the previous sentence.

Punctuation is certainly not the most exciting or glamorous aspect of writing fiction. But correct punctuation can make or break a novel, or any other type of writing, as most of us know only too well. When we come across poor punctuation or grammar, just remember that all-important comma in “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”!

And by the way, if you are still puzzling over them, here are ten punctuation marks that most of us are familiar with: the comma, apostrophe, quotation marks, exclamation mark, question mark, parenthesis, dash, colon, semi-colon and period.


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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