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ACADEMY: Punctuation

Beth Pavell

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Why is Punctuation Important?
The most basic reason is that punctuation makes writing easier to read. Punctuation is usually ‘invisible’ to a reader – in other words, when used correctly, most readers don’t notice punctuation is there. On the other hand incorrect punctuation is usually instantly noticeable. A golden rule of writing fiction is to never make it difficult for your reader to read the story. Getting the punctuation right is one of the quickest and easiest ways to avoid this.

You should also remember that there are different expectations for different kinds of writing. In an everyday forum post, or an instant message, people don’t expect much more than basic punctuation. With these kinds of writing, you’re not expecting to hold the reader’s attention for very long. Fanfiction has different standards. You’re hoping to hold the reader’s attention for much longer than the length of the average forum post. In that context, the niceties of punctuation become a lot more important to the reader.

Using this Article
This article is intended to be a concise guide to how to use punctuation. It doesn’t cover every possible use, and we have focused primarily on punctuation as it relates to fanfiction. Formal writing – academic writing, for example – has more demanding standards than fanfiction. For this reason we have also been careful to be clear on what are rules, and what are matters of style.

The first section of the article talks about each type of punctuation in turn. In the second section, we explain how to use punctuation in dialogue.

Period/Full Stop [ . ]
A period is the simplest punctuation mark. It ends a sentence. Unless another mark replaces it (Normally either an exclamation point or question mark), sentences should always end in a period. Unlike the exclamation point or question mark, a period is a neutral way to end a sentence.

It's also used in common abbreviations, like Mr. and Dr.

Comma [ , ]
Commas separate out parts of a sentence to make them easier to understand. They can be thought of as the written equivalent of a breath, or a pause. A good rule of thumb is to read the sentence out aloud – where you pause to take a break is probably where the commas should go. One of the subtlest arts of writing is choosing when to use commas to create these pauses and when not to.

Here are two other common uses for commas:

In Lists
This one’s simple – a comma goes between each item in a list, like so:

Red grew oran, sitrus, custap, and cheri berries.

The final comma in a list like this, before ‘and’ is sometimes called the ‘Oxford comma’. Remember that the comma separates each different item in a list. So take a look at this one:

Red had cheese, ham, bacon and peanut butter sandwiches.

Does Red have three or four sandwiches? Three – one cheese, one ham, and one bacon-and-peanut butter sandwich. Add the ‘Oxford comma’ and it becomes four – one cheese, one ham, one bacon, and one peanut butter sandwich.

Splitting up a sentence
An important use of commas is to divide up a sentence to make it easier to understand. In this use, the comma encloses different parts of a sentence in a logical way. So take this sentence:

Red who apparently never changed his clothes sometimes blacked out.

Which comes across as breathless and disorganised. Add a couple of commas, and we get this;

Red, who apparently never changed his clothes, sometimes blacked out.

Exclamation point/Exclamation mark [ ! ]
An exclamation point draws attention to the sentence. It can be used to show that the sentence is supposed to be shocking, surprising, or amusing. In subtitles it has been used in parentheses (!) to indicate sarcasm or irony. In modern fiction, it’s rare for exclamation marks to be used outside of speech.

Question mark [ ? ]
A question mark simply shows that the previous sentence is a question.

The Interrobang [ !? ]
An interrobang combines the uses of the exclamation point and the question mark. Interrobangs are most commonly used in speech, to show when a sentence is both a question and a statement of surprise or alarm.

Apostrophes [ ' ]
Apostrophes are used for three reasons – to show a contraction, an omission, or to show possession. Apostrophes are never used for plurals.

Contractions
Contractions are where two words are combined into one, slightly smaller word. Most of these words will be familiar – don’t, can’t, it’s, y’all, etc. In a contraction, the apostrophe is used to show where the missing letters are, like so:

Do not becomes Don’t.

It is becomes It’s.

You all becomes Y’all.

Omissions
Omissions are similar to contractions, in that the apostrophe is used to show where missing letters are. Omissions are usually used in speech to show an accent, or where the speaker isn’t pronouncing the whole word:

“You goin’ to t’ pub later?”

Here the omission is the ‘g’ in ‘going’ and the ‘h’ in ‘the’. Both are marked by an apostrophe to show that it’s not a spelling error, but an accent.

Possession
Possession shows that a thing belongs to something else. Simply put, to show possession, add apostrophe + s, like so:

Ash’s pikachu

If the name ends in ‘s’, you have two options. Either you can add apostrophe + s, or you can add apostrophe:

Iris’s axew
OR
Iris’ axew

It doesn’t really matter which method you are, so long as you are consistent, and use only one for the whole story.

Parentheses/Brackets [ ( ) ]
Parentheses are used to separate off information that relates to the main sentence, but isn’t essential to it. In essence, if you removed the words in the parentheses, the sentence should still make sense:

Red (Who apparently never changed his clothes) had a spoiled pikachu.

The information inside the parentheses is implied to be less important than the main sentence.

Hyphens [ - ]
Hyphens are versatile punctuation marks. You may come across definitions of hyphens that set them aside from em-dashes and en-dashes. We’ll be treating them all as the same mark. This is partly because the differences between these marks are usually only relevant in formal writing. This is also because when posting writing online, you sometimes have to use a hyphen instead of an em- or en-dash anyway.

Compound words
Hyphens are used to join compound words, such as carbon-neutral, good-looking, etc. Where compound words should be joined with a hyphen is a difficult question to answer. Some words lose their hyphen, like ‘good-bye’ becoming ‘goodbye’. There aren’t any hard rules on this.

Splitting up a sentence
Hyphens can be used to split up a sentence in a similar way to commas. In this way they can be used when you need to use commas to mark a pause and don’t want the sentence to look confusing:

Red – who apparently never changed his clothes – sometimes blacked out, often at the lab.

Ellipses [ … ]
An ellipsis is always three periods in a row, no more, no less. An ellipsis never two, neither four. Five is right out. Ellipses are used to show a long pause or hesitation in a sentence. Ellipses can be used in the middle of a sentence or at the end. When used at the end of a sentence, it is good practice to also use it at the end of a paragraph, otherwise it can look like it can look like a mid-sentence pause. Ellipses should never be used as a substitute for a period.

Semi-colons [ ; ]
Semi-colons can be used to connect two related sentences. The sentences should have something to do with each other. So the following sentences -

Red apparently never changed his clothes. He was always seen wearing the same cap.

- can be joined like so:

Red apparently never changed his clothes; he was always seen wearing the same cap.

But these sentences -

Red apparently never changed his clothes. His pikachu was spoiled and fat.

- can't be joined with a semi-colon, because Red’s fat pikachu has nothing to do with his clothes.

Semi-colons are never used with conjunctions, such as “and”, “but”, “so”, etc. So the following sentence is incorrect:

Red apparently never changed his clothes; and he was always seen wearing the same cap.

In Lists

Semi-colons can be used like commas in lists (See Comma above), in order to join a series of sentences together into one list.

Colons [ : ]
There are three main uses of colons:

Splitting up a sentence
A colon can be used in the middle of a sentence, when the second part explains or follows on from the first:

Red’s pikachu was spoiled and fat: it never stopped eating ketchup.

Introducing a list
In this case a colon is used before the beginning of a list:

Red grew many berries: oran, sitrus, custap, and cheri.

Before a quotation
And in a similar manner, before introducing a quotation or reported speech:

There was a new headline today: ‘60lb Pikachu Falls Through Floorboards.’

Dialogue and Punctuation
The rules of punctuating dialogue are a bit trickier. First, some basic principles. Dialogue is marked out by the use of speech marks – either “ ” or ‘ ’. It doesn’t really matter which one you use, so long as you are consistent. Speech marks always go on the outside of the spoken sentence, like so:

“Red never speaks in complete sentences.”

Dialogue tags go before or after a piece of dialogue, and tell the reader who is speaking. The simplest kind of tag would be something like ‘Pikachu said’. When a dialogue tag comes after dialogue, the last period becomes a comma, like so:

“Red never speaks in complete sentences,” said Pikachu.

If you use any punctuation other than a period before a dialogue tag (Such as an exclamation mark or a question mark), you don’t need a comma:

“Red never speaks in complete sentences?” said Pikachu.

Interrupting the Dialogue
So what if you put a dialogue tag in the middle of the dialogue? If the tag doesn’t interrupt a sentence, nothing changes, so the dialogue should look like this:

“Red never speaks in complete sentences?” said Pikachu. “I’ve never noticed.”

If the tag does interrupt a sentence, then you put a comma after the tag and no capital letter at the start of the resumed sentence:

“When I’m providing examples all the time, you know,” Pikachu said, “it gets really rather tiring.”
 
Last edited:

Ambyssin

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So the interrobang is really done the way you showed it? I think I've only ever seen it with the question mark first [?!], so I just wanted to double-check on that one. I've actually avoided using them entirely because I thought they weren't acceptable forms of punctuation. ^^;
 

Beth Pavell

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It can actually be done both ways. Interrobangs are sometimes considered to be amateurish or incorrect, but since that's really an argument about style I didn't include that in the article.
 

Ambyssin

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Okay, that makes it so much clearer! And would explain why I got to thinking about the way I did. I guess the key is to use them quite sparingly or they lose their impact.
 

Beth Pavell

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Indeed - this article is intended as more of a beginner's guide for tidying up common errors. I didn't get into the debate about the use of semi-colons for that reason, or talk about the finer stylistic points of the ellipsis vs the hyphen.

Which is no reason why you all can't talk about it here, of course
 

Ambyssin

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Aha ha... yeah, I wouldn't know about those debates. I'm one of those beginners who made all the common errors in dialogue attribution and had to have that pointed out to me so I could fix them. ^^;
 

Misfit Angel

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I didn't get into the debate about the use of semi-colons for that reason
There's a debate about that? I must know, as I abuse the ever loving shit out of semicolons.

the ellipsis vs the hyphen
As with most of my writing, I'm not actually aware of the strict rules of the English language (shocking, I know, considering this is what I've dedicated my life to). However, I believe I've got this right at least! Hyphens are for interruptions by other characters, I believe, as well as switches in thought:

Interruption said:
"Here, let me show--"

"I'm not interested in seeing it! I'm only interested in the results!"
Change in thought said:
"Well, you see, I had an excellent -- Hey, put that down! You break it you buy it!"

Whereas I typically use ellipsis to denote that a character is either rambling or needs a longer pause in speech than a typical end period would be, miserable or leading another character into talking about something.

Longer pause or ramble said:
"Hey... I've recently been thinking about all those good times we've had... We should do it again. The weather's getting better!"
Miserable said:
"Are you kidding me... I fell for it... I fucking fell for it. His lies... Every single one of them..."
Leading another character said:
"So, I heard that maybe you were... ya know..."

"Heard that I was what?"

"That you might be..."

"Getting sick of writing this example because it's actually kind of bad and never really used?"
 

Stratelier

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One note about the ellipses: In some styles, the ellipses is not a fullstop so whatever punctuation the sentence would otherwise terminate with still applies.

In practice, "...?" and "...!" are easily recognized, but "...." (ellipses + period) is also technically correct.
 

kintsugi

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But that takes effort!

...and it kinda looks silly. I feel like it doesn't carry as much weight as keeping the two separate.

But have you seen my question commaɁ̦Ɂ̦Ɂ̦Ɂ̦ which is a comma but also a question mark.

(Also, Pav, thanks for the write-up. With your permission, could I link to this instead of writing out dialogue rules for the tenth time?)
 

Beth Pavell

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(Also, Pav, thanks for the write-up. With your permission, could I link to this instead of writing out dialogue rules for the tenth time?)

Absolutely, I'm more than happy for this to be repeatedly used and referenced
 

diamondpearl876

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One note about the ellipses: In some styles, the ellipses is not a fullstop so whatever punctuation the sentence would otherwise terminate with still applies.

In practice, "...?" and "...!" are easily recognized, but "...." (ellipses + period) is also technically correct.

I always wondered about this being correct or not. I don't like the way it looks, personally, but I can see why it'd be grammatically correct. ...Now I'm going to question myself every time I use an ellipses at the end of a sentence. XD

l̵̻̾e̸̹̊t̷̝͘'̶̱̐s̴͎͐ ̷̰͆j̴̦͝ù̵̪s̸̮̀ț̴̿ ̸̞̒w̷̰͂r̵̥̀ĩ̶͔t̶̢͋ḛ̸̐ ̸͙̀f̴͎̑i̴͖̍c̶̳̾s̸̢̎ ̷̖̈́l̷̘͗i̸̡͠k̴̟̓e̸̗͒ ̸͑ͅṯ̶̀h̸̖̀í̷͔s̷͉̏ ̸͖̾f̶̜̋o̷̹͑ŗ̵̑e̸͇̎v̷̈́ͅe̸͓͊r̷͍͐ ̴̙̔a̸̻̾n̷̡̅d̵̮̐ ̵̣̿e̵̛͍v̴̀ͅe̷͙̋r̴͖̿
 
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