Notes from writing class - A Primer on Punctuation

Disclaimer: This is a recurring and random series of posts. I'm currently enrolled in a basic writing/editing class and felt that my notes might be helpful to others. Please note, I am not an editor. I'm just an author trying to learn more about the craft to improve my own work, and sharing the things I learn along the way.   Enjoy.

This week is all about punctuation. Be sure to follow through to each day as I try and decipher my notes and give you an overview of the lessons I learned on the subject.

I’m not going to go in-depth here (I’ll save that for later). This post will be just the basics on common punctuation and usage.

The Period. This is the most straightforward of all the punctuation marks we use. It’s the full stop between sentences.  For the most part, there is no explanation necessary.  What you might be confused on is the correct amount of spaces that are supposed to go behind it.

Way back in the Stone Age, when people use to use typewriters (shudder) to crank out their manuscripts, two spaces was the rule. The reason for this is that the old typewriters use to use mono-spaced fonts (also called a fixed-pitch or non-proportional font). This is a font whose letters and characters each occupy the same amount of horizontal space.  To create a strong visual break between sentences, the double space was used.

Today however, most word processors use a proportional font (such as Times or Arial) where each character is different width. In a proportional font, the period is squished over to the left of its space. Therefore you don’t need to type two spaces after a period, and in fact you shouldn’t: this leads to too much space.

The Colon. The colon signals that what comes next is directly related to the previous sentence. It's an introductory mark that can stand for “namely” or “that is to say.”

Remember though, this should only be used after a complete sentence to further define an idea. For example, you could say, I enjoy the variety of dishes at Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie.

I enjoy the variety of dishes at Thanksgiving dinner, is one complete sentence. The colon tells us that what comes next is a clarification of those "dishes."

Now, in fiction writing the colon is a grey area. It's considered more of a technical punctuation mark for list and such. You can easily replace the colon in your manuscript with an Em dash for the same effect.

Em Dash. Ok since I told you to swap out a colon for an em dash, let’s take a look at what it does.

An em dash is used to set something off in a sentence—such as an aside—or to indicate an abrupt interruption of speech. It can also take the place of a colon (as mentioned above), parenthesis  or, in some cases, a semi-colon. (see how I snuck the example in there?)

Semi-colon. For the most part, a semi-colon in fiction is meant to join to independent clauses (two sentences that could stand on their own), that have a connection that would make you want to link them together, instead of using a period in between.

I love to go to the Strip; however, the crowds make me nervous.

See both of those could be their own sentences but you joined them with the semi colon. (And yes, you can start a sentence with However. However, I wouldn’t get in the habit of it; some grammar Nazi’s might complain.) =p

Quotation marks. Quotation marks are another fairly self-explanatory piece of punctuation; however, there is some confusion between single and double.

Double quotation marks usually surround titles (depending on style guides this can be exchanged for italics), special words, and dialogue.

Single quotation marks usually surround quoted quotes. "When I spoke to George he said, ‘I don't ever want to talk to her again'."

Just remember that singe quotes are always used within double quotes, never alone.

On little punctuating quirk I learned about quotation marks is that there is a difference in the placement of the period between US and UK English. We in the US place our periods inside of the quote whereas UK English demands they be placed on the outside. I'm going to have to look for that in the next UK book I read.

If you’ll notice, I haven’t touched commas. That’s because it’s a punctuation mark I have so much trouble with. I want to take more time on it so it will get its very own post. Look for it next time.


Cheree said…
Thanks for a great post. I have to admit I also hate the dreaded comma (I can never get that right).
Brenda said…
Awesome post!!! I love that you are sharing your notes with us!!!
Katie S said…
The comma is my nemesis. LoL.
declanconner said…
If you pick up a UK published book, you will also notice they reverse the quotation marks to single and double for internal quotes and the comma would go outside the internal quotes. To me it seems more logical.

'I didn't agree with him when he said,"People form Britain can't spell and punctuate",he'd never read anything before in UK English.'