Commas are my personal nemesis. Those tiny little marks on a page can completely change the sense of a sentence, as per the fantastic book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.
But how do we make the most of punctuation? Rachel Stout from New York Book Editors explains in today's article.
When it comes to grammar and the correct way to do things, I worry more about punctuation than anything else when writing.
Other rules — splitting infinitives, knowing the difference between further and farther or when to use the active voice versus passive — don’t weigh as heavily on my mind. I can just look those up quickly and move on, comfortable with what I’ve written.
But punctuation is not as easily referenced. In a grammar book or online, how do I describe my various clauses and intended meaning so that punctuation can correctly be assessed?
Most of my time is spent evaluating or editing manuscripts, so I can tell you that punctuation rules are some of the most commonly ignored rules in writing.
Either writers admit to me up front that they have no idea whether or not they’ve used way too many commas (answer: yes), improperly used quotation marks (answer: maybe, let me see) or used too few semicolons (answer: almost certainly no).
Understanding how and when to use common punctuation marks (meaning I’m not really interested in discussing interrobangs at the moment, or ever) will not only make you a more sophisticated and practiced writer, but it will give you the ultimate tool: knowing how and when to break those rules and use punctuation to imply feeling and tone in a way that mere word choice cannot.
Breaking punctuation rules is only effective if you’re breaking the rule on purpose.
Simply writing full steam ahead without the intention of, say ignoring commas and periods, results in a final paragraph of nonsense and jumbled words. Doing the same thing, but doing it purposefully has an entirely different outcome.
The words, the flow, the insinuation of pause and of inflection becomes apparent in this case, and instead of mumbo jumbo, the result is something more like Molly Bloom’s “yes I said yes I will Yes,” which closes out an entire punctuation-less chapter that is full of feeling, emotion, swirling thoughts and contradictions, ending on this note of pure bliss at the close of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
“yes I said yes I will Yes” is famous not because the words chosen are anything special, but because no matter whether you’re familiar with the rest of the story, that final paragraph stirs something inside of you when you read it.
The rush of feeling, of teetering on the edge of choice and love and passion and self-doubt is so familiar, so utterly human that it’s palpable without explanation. The careful non-use of punctuation causes the reader to go ever faster, flying through the words, which again themselves aren’t of utmost importance here.
It’s the flying, the racing, the rush of getting everything in because there are no periods or commas to indicate a stop or a pause, nothing to slow the reader down or to shift course. The words themselves are chosen purposefully to accompany the punctuation (or lack thereof), making its use the most important thing in the passage.
How to get there, though? We know that punctuation can change the literal meaning of a sentence. Too many serial comma debates have ended with someone laying down the trump card stating the irrefutable difference between “I love my parents, Beyoncé, and Benedict Cumberbatch” and “I love my parents, Beyoncé and Benedict Cumberbatch” to deny that.
However, as shown in the Molly Bloom requiem above and in countless other works of great fiction, the intentional use or non-use of punctuation can change the tone or feeling of a piece to great effect.
Cormac McCarthy, for example, has been quoted as saying, “I believe in periods, capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it,” and anyone who's read anything of McCarthy’s knows how much effect the starkness of the words and sparseness of punctuation adds to the depth and breadth of his work.
Where in Joyce’s chapter, the lack of punctuation results in a huge rush of intense emotion, McCarthy’s novels are quieter, though still deep in feeling. Neither author could have achieved that if they were writing without knowledge of the rules of punctuation. They were successful because they wrote in spite of them.
The first thing to note when using punctuation creatively is that there are still limitations. Not all punctuation marks can be played around with. You’ll have the best results with commas, periods, quotation marks and dashes.
Semicolons, however, don’t have the same elasticity. Colons and parentheses can be hugely effective when used intentionally, but my advice is to use them sparingly. They cause such an interruption in reading that the pause or aside should be worth it. The aside an em-dash indicates is usually not as drastic as it fits better within the flow of the sentence.
Let’s get the basics of each mark down so we can figure out how to manipulate them. When I say basics, I truly mean basics because of course pages can be written about each, but for our purposes, the basic rules will suffice.
First up, the one with the most rules, even at the basic level: the comma.
Comma Rules and Uses
Separating items in a series
Commas are used to separate items in a series of three or more nouns or two or more coordinate adjectives. Whether or not you decide to use the serial, or Oxford, comma before the final “and” or “or” in the list is up to you.
- Example (Nouns): I went to the store and bought apples, bananas, bread and milk.
- Example (Coordinate adjectives): The bright, shining sun was warm that day.
(Note: Adjectives are coordinate if you can change their order and the meaning remains the same. If you cannot, they are not coordinate and should not be separated by commas)
Surrounding nonessential appositives
An appositive is the word or phrase that describes or adds additional information about a noun in the sentence. Only nonessential appositives are surrounded by commas. An essential appositive is a word or phrase that if removed, changes the meaning of the sentence. Essential appositives are not offset with commas. If the appositive only adds to the sentence, but does not affect its meaning, then commas are used.
- Example (Essential): Fleetwood Mac’s song Landslide has been covered by many other artists.
Here, “Landslide” is the appositive, but without it, the sentence would not have the same meaning, so we don’t use commas.
- Example (Nonessential): The house where I grew up, a blue bungalow with red shutters, has been repainted.
Here, “a blue bungalow with red shutters” is the appositive and without it, the sentence would retain its meaning: “The house where I grew up has been repainted.” This is why the appositive is offset with commas.
Before a coordinating conjunction
There are many sub-rules here, but at the most basic level, when you are connecting two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, you should use a comma. An independent clause is a portion of a sentence that could stand on its own and a coordinating conjunction is one of the following: and, nor, for, but, so, or, yet.
- Example: I hate eating apples, but I love eating apple pie.
After an introductory phrase
Usually, an adverbial phrase, the part of the sentence that sets up or introduces its subject and verb is the introductory phrase. (Hint: I started the previous sentence with an introductory phrase offset by a comma!) Sometimes a comma is not used, especially if the introductory phrase is made up of three words or less. (Hint: I did not offset the introductory word in that sentence, and it is grammatically okay).
- Example: After seeing the movie, we all went out for ice cream.
Breaking the Rules
So we know James Joyce doesn’t always love commas, and Cormac McCarthy certainly isn’t a fan. Gertrude Stein didn’t use them much, either, and she did okay for herself.
The most effective thing a comma does in a sentence is to create a pause. It’s a visual breathing mark or break in a sentence that can either go unnoticed or stand out.
Adding a comma where one might not necessarily be required should be an intentional choice—a moment where you are asking the reader to stop, sit up and notice. Maybe you want to call attention to the first part of a sentence or you want to make them pause awkwardly to show awkwardness in a scene.
Maybe you want to not use commas at all in dialogue to indicate a lilted accent or rushed way or speaking, or a child who doesn’t yet have a grasp on his or her own cadence, but you’ll have correct comma usage throughout all narrative portions of the text.
The best hint here? Read your work aloud as it is written, and then read it aloud as you intend it to sound. Are they different? If so, add or subtract the commas—the pauses, the emphases—where desired.
Period Rules and Uses
Ending a declarative sentence: This one doesn’t need too much explaining (I hope!). A period goes at the end of a sentence to indicate, well, its end, unless the sentence is a question or exclamation.
That’s pretty much the only hard and fast rule to using a period, which makes it a much simpler mark than the comma we just barreled through, but there is sometimes confusion as to where a period should be placed in conjunction with other punctuation marks, so here’s a quick overview:
With quotation marks: In American English, the period always goes inside the closing quotation marks. In British English, the period goes outside.
After an abbreviation: If you’ve ended a sentence with an abbreviation, like “etc.,” there is no need to add a second period.
With parentheses: If the parenthetical statement is its own independent clause placed in between two other full sentences, then the full sentence, including its period, goes inside the parentheses. If the statement is included in the middle of or at the end of another independent clause, the period goes at the end of the non-parenthetical statement and thus, outside of the parentheses.
- Example: I’m good at grammar. (At least I think I am.) A more accurate statement might be: I’m getting the hang of it.
- Example: I’m a grammar pro (and I don’t give myself enough credit).
Breaking the Rules
Because the period is universally simple, it’s difficult to misuse! However, I like to think about the British term for a period when thinking about how best to use it to enhance my writing: the full stop.
Where a comma is a pause, a period is a full stop. Short, fragmented writing, where each phrase, independent clause or not, is separated by a period can indicate so many things. Depression, stilted thinking, disbelief, the inability to comprehend, shock—the list goes on.
Think about any moment in life where you’ve been so overcome by emotion or new information that it’s near impossible to form a complete thought. Using periods to end a sentence fragment, to bring it to a “full stop,” can indicate that numbness or that inability to process.
Of course, the opposite usage is the run-on sentence. Run-on sentences are tricky because so often they are written without intent, but used intentionally, they can indicate a different side of emotional overwhelm.
Instead of being at a loss for words, or indicating a full stop, run-on sentences indicate a racing mind, a fast-paced scene, or a glut of activity and conversation.
Here, our friend the comma comes back into play. Using a comma splice, which is to say using a comma instead of a period, should be done sparingly. If used intentionally and in the right tone, a comma splice can carry the tone of a passage.
See how clearly the image and voice of Holden Caufield becomes through this run-on sentence full of comma splices from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
You can just see the teenager pretending to be apathetic about lame (and probably phony) things like caring about personal history and family.
Quotation Mark Rules and Uses
To show dialogue: The placement of punctuation inside and outside of quotation marks and whether or not to use single or double quotes vacillates between British and American English as well as between scholars in each school, so I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty here. What you do need to know, is that the most common use of quotation marks in fiction is to indicate dialogue, or someone speaking.
They are not used to indicate a thought, even when a narrator is recalling the idea of what someone said. They are used when recalling the exact words that someone said.
- Example (recalling an idea): John remembered that Susie had told him to put his pants on when he left the house.
- Example (recalling exact words): John remembered Susie’s words so clearly. “If you forget to put your pants on, the neighbors will be angry!” He’d better put them on, he thought to himself.
Note: I threw in a bonus non-quoted thought in that last one!
To show a new person speaking: The rulebooks will tell you that when a new speaker speaks, whether in a conversation between two people or with a narrative paragraph being broken into by a speaker, a new paragraph is necessary. With each new paragraph and each line of dialogue, you must indent.
Breaking the Rules
The most forgiven rules in creative fiction and memoir are those that accompany dialogue, and thus, quotation marks. However, and I’ll keep repeating myself here, it must be done with intention.
It’s very clear when an author is not aware of the rules of where to place punctuation within or outside of quotation marks (though remember, it varies between British and American), or if they are not clear on how to indicate dialogue at all. Usually, these writers are inconsistent with how they indicate or punctuate dialogue.
Consistency is what matters with quotation marks and dialogue. Do you want everything in one line, no quotation marks at all, ala Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes? Take a look at how colloquial, familiar, and conversational this feels:
Dad is out looking for a job again and sometimes he comes home with the smell of whiskey, singing all the songs he can about suffering Ireland. Ma gets angry and says Ireland can kiss her arse. He says that’s nice language to be using in front of the children and she says never mind the language, food on the table is what she wants, not suffering Ireland.
On top of the conversational tone and the speed with which you begin to race through the sentence, the perspective here is limited, a little rough around the edges. That’s because at this moment, the narrator is a small child and thus, takes in everything about the world in a particular way.
Using or not using quotes, indenting, breaking paragraphs and all the other rules surrounding dialogue affect style as much as tone.
How do you want the words to look on the page? Many paragraph breaks can achieve the same stilted or at-a-loss feeling as fragmented sentences separated by periods can. The same read aloud test can be used here.
Em-Dashes, Colons, and Parentheses Rules
I’m lumping all of these together because they all achieve a similar goal in creative writing: to indicate an aside, amplify a portion of a sentence or thought, or to offer an alternative point of view.
If you don’t know which to use, my rule of thumb is to always go em-dash, though as I said at the start of this post, you’ve got to be careful not to go overboard.
Using a colon: Unless you’re formatting a list, the only time to use a colon is after an already complete thought. What comes after the colon usually amplifies or expands upon the first portion, but doesn’t indicate much of a pause.
- Example: Sarah has two favorite foods: pizza and ice cream.
Using parentheses: Em-dashes have eclipsed parentheses when used to separate explanatory or qualifying remarks from the rest of the sentence. Using either is correct, but only parentheses can be used to offset a complete sentence or thought, usually as an aside.
Using em-dashes: Aside from replacing parentheses when used within a complete sentence, the em-dash can also set off appositives like commas, indicate a switch in focus, or bring focus to a list connected to a clause.
- Example (replacing parentheses): Mary always said she was an expert in fencing—she’s really not.
- Example (setting off appositives): All three of my dogs—Fluffy, Bumper and Duke—have different personalities.
- Example (switch in focus): And now I will tell you my greatest secret—actually, no, I’ve changed my mind.
- Example (bring focus to a list): Sunscreen, towel, book—everything is packed for the beach!
Breaking the Rules
Here’s where you can have the most fun, in my opinion.
As long as you don’t overuse them, it’s very difficult to misuse a colon, parentheses or em-dash.
Do you want your narrator interjecting his or her own thoughts all the time in a distinctive voice or take on life? Em-dash, em-dash, em-dash!
Do you want to formally and distinctively expand upon a thought, or make that expansion seem like an awaited reveal or an extremely important detail? Use a colon!
Are we getting a whispered aside, an alternative viewpoint, or something special that only the reader gets to know and not others in the story? Do you want to tell a story within a story? Parentheses can achieve that for you!
I often see these three punctuation marks as the playful ones, the marks that can really bring a liveliness to your writing and showcase the voice of a particular character or narrator. Use them sparingly, yes, but play around and see how adding a few em-dashes into your narrative might bring out a new side to your story that even you were unaware was there.
Thanks for going on this whirlwind Punctuation 101 with me. I know it can be exhausting to get down, but once you’ve got the basics firm in your toolbox, you can begin to play with them, alter them to your whim and intentionally manipulate punctuation to change the tone or impact your writing has.
Do you have a favorite punctuation mark? Do you have a favorite author who flagrantly bucks the rules? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Rachel Stout is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Formerly a literary agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, Rachel currently offers editorial feedback for writers of fiction and memoir and coaches authors to provide them with tools for pitching their work to literary agents in Query Mastery, an online course run in tandem with New York Book Editors. Find out more about Rachel at her website.
New York Book Editors are a team of professional editors who have worked with some of the biggest names in the industry as well as offering services to indie authors. They provide in-depth manuscript reviews, manuscript critique, comprehensive edit, proposal edit, copyediting and ghostwriting.