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  Basic Punctuation

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 From the pages of:

Novel Writing Made Simple

by Gordon A. Kessler

d) Punctuation. Punctuation-the death knell of many writers. I’ve been told that as few punctuation marks as there are in the English language, it shouldn’t be too hard to know when to use them correctly. I don’t know about you, but even without considering the en, em, 2-em and 3-em dash, proper punctuation can be confusing to me.

An added complication is that many contemporary editors are more receptive to trends of exceptions to the old and firm punctuation rules we learned in high school and college.  Again, subjectivity raises its artful head.  Old school punctuation-by the letter, let’s say-is called closed, whereas more contemporary views of punctuation used sparingly and only to provide clarity is appropriately called open.  As soon as you get used to the more receptive editors’ somewhat lax treatment of English grammar conventions  , you might find an agent who feels exactly the opposite and requires that you write by a particular style guide.   There are even a few agents still adhering to a more British style than the commonly accepted American style.  This quandary is only solved by careful research of the agent or editor you are querying.  Still, I think you’ll find that in most cases, the storyitself will carry more weight to even the pickiest agent than his or her own views on punctuation.

But please, always refer to a good dictionary or style book when in doubt.  Some of the more popular dictionaries such as Webster’s New World College Dictionary have trustworthy style guides included.  The Chicago Manual of Style can also be considered a definitive source.  Most fiction writers use Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style because it is to the point, easy to use and compact.  Still, you may find these sources vary on a few specific guidelines. 

The most often used English punctuation marks are listed below with a brief summary of how and when to use them when writing fiction-according to Kessler’s Rule-of-Thumb Style


The period [ . ] is used:

1. at the end of a purposely written fragment or complete sentence that is a statement, command or courtesy request;

2. at the end of most abbreviations-if you’re unsure, look up the particular abbreviation in your dictionary or stylebook.

The comma [ , ] is the most abused, unnecessarily used and misunderstood punctuation mark, indicating the slightest interruption of sentence structure or in continuity of thought.  Many industry professionals agree that the comma’s primary purpose is to clarify intent and meaning within a particular sentence that might otherwise be ambiguous or confusing. 

When all is said and done, when possible, avoid separating the subject of a sentence from its verb or placing a comma between the verb of a sentence and its direct object (although you’ll see that I’ve disregarded this rule often in this book due to complexity of content and thought).  Use good judgment and make your primary concern to convey your story as clearly as possible to the reader. 

          Conventionally, the comma is used:

1. to join independent clauses  , introductory clauses that are long and could be confused and participial phrases  (do not use a comma after a gerund phrase-serving as the subject of a sentence).  When introductory clauses and independent clauses are short and there is no danger of being misunderstood, the comma may be left out; 

2. to set off mildly parenthetical elements and introductory participial phrases that do not precede the verb. This includes words, phrases or interjections that interrupt the sentence.  However, in many cases the comma can be left out if the writer doesn’t want the reader to pause and sentence clarity is not sacrificed; 

3. between more than two items in a list or series with the comma between the last two items left out if it doesn’t cause confusion; 

4. before or after a quote to separate the quote from the dialogue tag, if that
          quote does not end with an exclamation point or question mark


The exclamation point [ ! ]  is used when a point is made emphatically as in an emergency, interjection or done with high emotion.  It is used mainly in dialogue and internalization and rarely used in exposition.

The question mark [ ? ]  is used to end a question.  It is always included in dialogue  before closing quotes, e.g. “Did you go?” she asked. 

The single quote mark [ ‘ ’ ]  is used in fiction writing only to express dialogue repeated within dialogue and must be within a sentence enclosed by double quote marks, i.e., Bob told him, “She said, ‘don’t bother me, I’m watching my soaps.’”  Proper use of double and single quotes is sometimes confused with the opposite British style by inexperienced writers. 

The double quote mark [   ” ] is used:

1. to set off dialogue, or audible speech but never for onomatopoeias or sounds other than words; 

2. to set off the names of poems, essays and articles;

3. sometimes for nicknames, but usually only for initial introduction of that nickname;

4. when referring to a word as a word.

According to most style guides concerning writing fiction in an “open“ American style, when quote marks are used, always put periods, commas and ellipses inside the closing quotation mark.  However, question marks, exclamation points, and dashes should only be inclusive when they are part of the quotation.  Regard this as the general rule when considering single quotes, also. 

The colon [ : ] is used to introduce a list or modification and can be substituted for that is.  It is normally used before lists introduced by phrases such as: these are, they are, the following, as follows and such as.  Colons are not used frequently in fiction, especially when a comma will do. 

The semicolon [ ; ] is used to join independent clauses  that show a close connection and that do not have a coordinating conjunction.  It also can be used between items in a series, especially when commas are used within the series.  A semicolon should also separate two independent clauses that show relationship and should precede conjunctive adverbs such as “however.”  In fiction, if ambiguity can be avoided with a comma, use it.  

The dash [ - or -- ] isn’t used frequently in formal and business writing, but can be a very helpful tool when writing fiction.  Generally, it takes the place of a comma but carries more weight.  The dash is more relaxed than parentheses and is less formal than a colon. It is made by typing two hyphens close together with no spaces between them and the two adjoining words.  With a word processing program such as MS Word, the two hyphens should automatically form into a longer dash while typing.  The dash is used to: 

1. interrupt a sentence as an interruption of thought, with a second dash following        the interruption if the sentence returns to the initial thought; 

2. show when the dialogue of one character is interrupted by that of another and should be followed by closing quote marks and no other punctuation [ -” ]; 

3. show hesitation or a break in dialogue

4. introduce a statement or explanation such as a parenthetical expression;

5. introduce a clarifying or emphasizing statement;

6. sum up a list or thought.

The hyphen [ - ] is used:

1. to divide a word at the end of a line;

2. between spelled out compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine;

3. between words modifying a noun (such as mild-mannered reporter) to ensure clarity of meaning (but never after a modifier ending in ly)

The ellipsis or suspension points [ . . . ] are used following a space:

1. to show words or sentences have been omitted from a quotation;

2.to show a trailing off of speech;

3. as suspension points to show a pause in dialogue or an unfinished statement

Note #1: If the ellipsis follows a complete sentence, a fourth dot (period) should be           inserted [ . . . . ] (or question mark [ . . . ?]); otherwise, the ellipsis stands alone except in cases where closing quote marks are necessary [ . . .” ].

Note #2: for electronic media, the ellipsis normally doesn’t require spaces between         the dots [ … or …. ].  However, most credible sources say that dots should be    “spaced” for ordinary manuscripts.  Most importantly, be consistent.

The apostrophe[ or ] is used to show possessives (an exception being the possessive form of it being its), omission of letters (especially in contractions) or to show plurals when referring to specific letters (A’s), numbers (100’s), words or abbreviations themselves.  If the plural word already ends in an “s” use only the apostrophe to indicate possession, e.g. the Sims’. 

          Parentheses  [ ( ) ] are used rarely in fiction.  They set off incidental information which might as easily be set off by commas or dashes.  According to a number of fiction-writing authorities, parentheses are considered distracting-even though a number of name-brand authors use them.  Many sentences with parenthesis can be rearranged without them and be made much stronger-or can be recast into two sentences that flow smoother. 

The slash (a.k.a. solidus ref. CMS), slant or virgule [ / ]  is rarely used in fiction between two words or phrases to indicate alternatives. 

Gather Your Thoughts, Organize Your Story And Bring It All Together! 

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