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Rated: 13+ · Article · Writing · #1953259
Those nasty little marks that pepper your writing.

I apologize to the late Victor Borge with his brilliant routine of phonetic punctuation from which the title is taken. However, I'm not going to talk about all of the punctuation marks that Borge verbalized and which I couldn't possibly spell. I'd like to limit this to some basic punctuation problems commonly found in fiction writing. These include:

         *Bullet* Capitalization
         *Bullet* Exclamation Points
         *Bullet* Question Marks
         *Bullet* Hyphens and Dashes
         *Bullet* Serial Commas
         *Bullet* Conjunctions
         *Bullet* Dialog

One caveat I need to address before beginning: this is primarily for American English. There are some slight difference between American and British punctuation, which I'll address at the end.

That's a Capital Idea

Most of us know to capitalize the beginning of sentences, proper names, established organizations, and so on. What we sometimes don't realize is when not to capitalize. Do not capitalize when terms are used generically. For example, each of the following is correct:

         He joined the United States Coast Guard.

         Training for the coast guard was as difficult as any military training he had taken.

Capitals can also be used on whole words. This is done to achieve a certain emphasis or clarity to make the word or words stand out. In the example below, the capitals emphasize a book title. If not capitalized, the clarity of the sentence would be compromised. Italics could also be used to denote a book title, but the author can attribute more emphasis with the use of capitals. Also, it's difficult to italicize something that's already italicized. For example:

Reading NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE at such a young age had a negative impact on his life, he thought.

Capitalize words as rarely as possible, even if they seem important to you. In the majority of cases, they may not be as important as you think. Let your words carry emphasis.

I'm Tired of Exclaiming!

The final sentence to the last section is just as appropriate with regard to exclamation points. These are one of the most over-used elements of punctuation in modern fiction writing.

I'm sure you all have heard or read the story of the little boy who cried "wolf" too often. When a wolf finally showed up, no one believed the boy any longer. The same is true of exclamation points. You will sometimes read dialog in which almost every sentence carries an exclamation point. By the time the writer gets to the point he or she is trying to make, and wants to denote real emphasis, the opportunity is lost. Consider the following short dialog:

         "How many times are we going to argue about this?!" he asked.
         "As many times as we need to resolve it!" she responded, raising her voice.
         "I'm tired of talking about it!" he said, storming out of the room.
         "I hate you!" she yelled at his disappearing back.

Now, consider this:

         "How many times are we going to argue about this?" he asked.
         "As many times as we need to resolve it," she responded, raising her voice.
         "I'm tired of talking about it," he said, storming out of the room.
         "I hate you!" she yelled at his disappearing back.

Do we really need to be told with the series of exclamation points that two people are having an argument? The words that the writer has chosen are working well to carry the emphasis without using exclamation points. By peppering each sentence with an exclamation point, the important emphasis of the last sentence is lost.

In addition, one should never use the combination of exclamation point and question mark. It has little function in prose. It is sometimes called an interrobang, and is often used by novice writers as they attempt to explain complex tones. But it is always better to allow the reader to form their own opinion, and there are other ways of doing it.

For example, this is an inappropriate use:

         "Hey, what door am I supposed to go in?!"

Instead, consider writing it this way:

         "Hey! What door am I supposed to go in?"

Remember, readers are intelligent and can pick up the tone of your writing easily through the words you use.

One way of doing so is with something called an expletive. These are single words or phrases that emphasize the surrounding words. Commonly, they are thought to be only curse words. Aren't we fond of saying "expletive deleted" to indicated a place holder for a curse word? But expletives are much more than that. Here are just a few other examples:

         All truth is not, indeed, of equal importance. (1)

The word "indeed" is inserted to lend emphasis to the fact that all truths are not of equal value. In this case, the expletive is inserted in the middle of the sentence and so is usually surrounded by commas to indicate it is interrupting the main thought. But an expletive can be placed at the beginning (to indicate something important is coming) or the end (to serve almost as an exclamation point). For example:

         In short, his spirit was broken.

         She thought of herself as the queen of the universe, of course.

So try to remove that overused exclamation point as a way of emphasizing your words. Consider this sentence, in which most novice writers would use an exclamation point.

         "I have no doubt that you are a liar!"

Now insert an expletive, remove the exclamation point, and the emphasis can become even greater—all carried by the force of words.

         "I have no doubt, at all, that you are a liar."

I Question That, Or Do I?

I'd like to rectify a common mistake when using a question mark. That is: not every question deserves one at the end of the sentence.

There are primarily two kinds of questions, the direct question and the indirect question. It's probably not difficult to tell which one gets the question mark. It's the first one. What's difficult is deciding if the question is direct or indirect. Below is an example of both:

         Direct: Who told you to do that?

         Indirect: Do we really need to be told to do that.

That was the easy part. You had to know I wasn't going to let you off that easily, didn't you? That question I just asked is a perfect example. Below are the additional forms of questions, showing the proper use of the question mark for each.

         *Bullet* Tag Questions—begins as a statement, but ends as a question.

                   That's a great idea, isn't it?

         *Bullet* Embedded Questions—includes a question somewhere within the sentence.

                   I can get there faster, can't I, if I take the train?

         *Bullet* Rhetorical Questions—asked when an answer is not expected.

                   We're all adults here, aren't we?

         *Bullet* Serial Questions—usually brief follow-up questions to the primary question.

                   Who's responsible for this failure? the boss? my co-workers? me?

         *Bullet* Request Questions—not a question; a polite way of forming a statement.

                   Would everyone please form a single line.

On Dasher, On Hyphen

Confusion surrounds the lowly dash and hyphen, partly because writers don't often realize there are two types of dashes. They get confused about which to use and why, so they just throw one or the other in and hope it's the right one. What they don't realize is there are definite rules regarding the use of each one. So let me describe them and their use.

The Hyphen (-).

This is usually found on the top row of your keyboard, to the right of the zero (0). It is used most commonly to separate compound words, phone numbers, and so on.

In the English language, words tend to go from two separate words, through a hyphenation phase, finally becoming compound words. Some examples in the English language include:

         rain coat *Right* rain-coat *Right* raincoat
         north east *Right* north-east *Right* northeast
         drop out *Right* drop-out *Right* dropout

Follow four basic rules when hyphenating words:

1. Always hyphenate words (either nouns or verbs) used as adjectives.

         Her ability to make decisions was flawed.
         Her decision-making ability was flawed.

         He was five years old and a math whiz.
         He was a five-year-old math whiz.

2. To be certain if a word can be compounded, look at the meaning and beware if the meaning is changed.

         retreat = go back
         re-treat = treat again

         light-housekeeping = sweep and dust
         lighthouse keeping = tend the light

         un-ionized = not ionized
         unionized = formed a union

Here's another example of how a hyphen can change the meaning. The following is an actual news headline:

         Did the crash land or did the plane crash?

         The little hyphen makes all the difference.

3. Pay attention to the part of speech when deciding which form of the word to use.

         Verb: He wanted to drop out of school.
         Adjective: The school's drop-out problem had become serious.
         Noun: They were all dropouts.

4. Base it on ease of readability.

         anitinflation = anti-inflation
         posttraumatic = post-traumatic
         shelllike = shell-like

There are, however, some words that convention dictate be compounded. Examples include: bookkeeper, cooperate, coordinate. The final test is does it look right? Will the reader trip over the word?

The En-Dash (–)

The en-dash is longer than a hyphen, about the length of the letter 'N', which is where it gets its name. You won't find it on your keyboard. Most word processing software, however, have the ability to insert it. Another way is to hold the ALT key down, and type '0150' at the same time (ALT-0150).

The en-dash basically stands for the word 'through,' so it is used most commonly in dates and numbers. For example:

         April 1–April 30.

         Pages 45–55.

The Em-Dash (—)

The em-dash is the longest dash, the length of the letter 'M' and likewise cannot be found on the keyboard. But like the en-dash, it can be inserted using the toolbar of word processors, or by typing ALT-0151.

The em-dash is the punctuation we typically think of when considering to use a dash. It is used to create a break in a sentence, to emphasis a point, or explain something like we would use parentheses. It is, however, a stronger way to do that. It is also used to add additional information to the end of a sentence—to help clarify or offer an explanation like this.

But what if your word processor can't handle it, or you happen to be using a typewriter? That is where you can still use the hyphen, though not a single hyphen. In the days before the world turned electronic, writers used two hyphens to designate a dash (--). Typesetters would then replace the two hyphens with an em-dash when printing the document. You can still do the same thing today if you don't want to bother trying to insert the em-dash. It makes no difference to editors or typesetters and is merely a question of taste. In the end, the em-dash will be used in the printed document, and that's all that really matters.

*Bullet* *Bullet* *Bullet*

One final comment about the hyphen, en-dash, and em-dash has to do with spacing. When using either one, do not include a space either before or after them. They should be used—like this—for example. Or--for example--like this.

There is one exception with the hyphen, which has to do with the rule for hyphenating nouns and verbs used as adjectives, in this case multiple adjectives.

For example, you would not type ...

         He painted the first-story and second-story windows.

Nor would you type ...

         He painted the first and second-story windows.

Instead, you would type ...

         He painted the first- and second-story windows.

This is the only instance where you would leave a space after the hyphen, which is called a hanging hyphen.

Comment on Commas

Where to begin? The comma is probably one of the most overused and least understood punctuation mark. Whole books have been devoted to proper use of the comma. There is the listing comma, the conjoining comma, the gaping comma, and the bracketing comma. There is a comma splice, a serial comma, an Oxford comma, and a Harvard comma. Sadly, there is no Blue-Devil comma (I'm a Duke graduate), though with a little thought, I'm sure I could make one up.

Commas have many functions. They separate independent clauses, allow the reader to pause and breathe, provide emphasis, join introductory elements, coordinate and correlate conjunctions. Yikes! I can't possibly go into all the rules and regulations for commas. What I prefer to do is highlight some common uses that are more specific to fiction writing.

One of the first rules I learned in reference to commas was that lists of adjectives require commas. However, in fiction writing, this is true only for long words. Using commas to separate adjectives for short words can slow reading to a crawl.

Consider this sentence ...

In her backyard, only frost-resistant, slow-growing, shade-tolerant plants survived.

Here, the use of commas is appropriate because the reader would most surely trip over the long list of hyphenated words without the help of commas. Now look at this sentence ...

As we ran into the clearing, we saw an old rickety red farmhouse.

Placing commas where they should go would only slow the sentence down unnecessarily. Remember that English rules may be broken when writing fiction, if done so sparingly. This isn't bad grammar. I call it modified good grammar.

Without going into great detail about serial commas, let me address one common question: is it appropriate to put a comma before the "and" of the final element in a serial? The answer is it depends on the feeling you want to convey. For example, compare the following two sentences.

As a token of his regret, he brought her flowers, candy and diamonds.

As a token of his regret, he brought her flowers, candy, and diamonds.

Two matters of tone come into play. First, each comma within a sentence forces a pause. Second, the word "and" is weak and attaches equal significance to words or clauses on either side. So in the first sentence, the "and" causes candy and diamonds to have equal emphasis, leaving flowers to stand out. In the second sentence, the pauses created by the commas emphasize each word equally, with diamonds getting slightly more because it's at the end of the sentence. I'm sure you can hear the difference with your mind's ear.

Commas are also often used to insert a parenthetical expression into a sentence. Remember, the comma is the weakest way of doing so. The strongest is with a pair of dashes. Compare the following three sentences:

The apology was, coming from him, rooted in arrogance.

The apology was (coming from him) rooted in arrogance.

The apology was—coming from him—rooted in arrogance.

Each is appropriate, though fiction writers tend to avoid using parentheses. If they want to make a strong statement they use dashes, commas to soften the tone. Parentheses often come across as asides to the reader, which breaks ties to the fictional world. It's often like becoming engrossed in a movie at a theater and someone sitting beside you leaning over and whispering, "That means so and so." It can get annoying and therefore not usually a good technique to use in fiction.

In the end, it depends on what you want to accomplish with a sentence. That is the crucial element in all writing. If you are fully aware of the tone you're trying to set, you can tailor everything—paragraphs, sentences, and words—to your ultimate goal.

And Then, There's Then

You're going to hate me for this. That's because I simply have to bring up the FANBOYS. I imagine you're annoyed beyond belief hearing about these seven fellows: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so—our English-speaking conjunctions. But I only bring them up again to make a point. Look through that horrible acronym again and see if you can find a "T" anywhere. Can't find one, can you? What that means is when you begin a dependent clause following a comma, the proper place to put a conjunction, you should never start it with "then." It's not one of the FANBOYS, so is not a conjunction.

This was always one of my worst errors when I began writing (my other was "it's" versus "its"). I simply couldn't stop from writing sentences like:

         He jumped the fence, then ran across the open field.

Nope, not good. It should be:

         He jumped the fence, and then ran across the open field.

You should begin weeding this out of your writing starting right now, if you haven't already done so. Otherwise it will just become a vicious habit, then get more difficult to break over time. I mean ... AND then get more difficult to break.

He Said, She Said

Let's begin with a valuable definition about writing dialog. Authors and editors often talk of something called a tag line. A tag line is also known as a speaker attribution. That's just a fancy way of indicating the part of a sentence that describes who is speaking. In the following example, the dotted underline denotes the tag line:

"You can't come in here," Cheryl said.

Now that you know what a tag line is, let's talk about some rules for using them. I'm sure you have a reasonable understanding just from reading other authors. Yet, it never hurts to go over the rules to make sure you have a clear concept of what is correct.

One thing you should know is that it’s not necessary to use a tag line every time one of your characters speaks, especially if there are only two people involved in dialog. Set up the dialog with tag lines, and then drop them. Of course, to help the reader, you may want to indicate who is speaking from time to time so the reader doesn't get lost. All of this is true only when you have only two characters speaking. Throw in a third character, or more, and you need to identify who is speaking almost every line.

12 Common Rules

1. Don't use tag lines as a way of slipping in explanations of your dialog.

This means you need to use the verb "said" almost exclusively. Some authors get nervous when they see a page filled with these. So, they begin to write dialog like:

"I hate to admit that," he grimaced.

"Come closer," she chuckled.

To use tag lines like these impose action on your characters that are physically impossible. No one has ever been able to grimace or chuckle a sentence. They may grimace or chuckle before or afterward, but rarely while speaking.

Treat tag lines almost as if they were a form of punctuation. If you do so, they almost seem to disappear. You have probably noticed that as you've read books by your favorite author. The worst thing you can do is "verb" your tag lines. That means you, as an author, think the "he said" and "she said" tag lines have become so repetitive that you need to add action to them. Don't do it. It identifies you immediately as a novice writer.

You can, however, use verbs to indicate volume: "he mumbled", "she yelled", "they whispered" are all good examples.

2. Include action with speech in the same paragraph, preceded by a comma.

If the character is doing some action while speaking, that generally gets included in the same paragraph with their words. This can vary if, for example, the speaker has a long speech. In that case, you may want to start a new paragraph. If it's a short comment about action, include it in the same paragraph.

If you do so, you should include a comma between the tag and further information or action. An example would be:

"Get out of here,” Vincent said, rising from his chair.

3. Punctuate the end of speech.

Each spoken sentence should end with some form of stop or comma before the close of speech, and all punctuation is contained within the quotation marks. Here are some examples:

"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Nothing," he replied.
"Go to bed then."

4. Continuation of speech after a tag does not usually start with a capital letter.

"I can't seem to get it right, she said, "no matter how hard I try."

5. A preceding tag is separated from speech by a comma.

Roger said, "I want to tell you something."

6. The tag line is not normally capitalized, unless it starts with a proper name.

Normal: "I have something to tell you," their father said.

Formal: "I have something to tell you," Father said.

7. When using a proper name or pronoun, it should come first in the tag line.

For example, it is better to use "Sally said" rather than "said Sally." The latter isn't seen as often, although it can be used sometimes for variety. It makes your work read smoother if you place the name first. The other way is more old-fashioned. Just remember the title of this section, and you'll never go wrong.

8. Use three ellipses for a voice trailing off.

Three ellipses (...) and three ellipses only, is the industry standard. I have yet to determine or even understand why, but using more than three identifies you as a novice.

"What do we do now?" she asked.
"I wish I knew ..."

9. Use a dash to signify interruption of speech.

"I have to tell you that—"
"I already know," he said, interrupting her.

10. Only spoken words should be in quotation marks.

You don’t put quotations around interior dialog. Today, most authors use italics rather than regular type.

I wonder what she's doing now, he thought.

11. Use single quotes only when quoting within a quote.

"Before he died, I heard him say 'I love you, Dad' as clearly as you're hearing me now."

12. During multiple paragraphs of dialog by one character, don't use the end-quotation mark until the entire section is completed.

In a lengthy speech or exposition, continue using the begin-quote for each paragraph to indicate continuing dialog. However, leave off the end-quote until the very end. Does that sound confusing? It's not if you saw an example:

         "I'd grown up happy. I was an only child, pampered. My grandfather was an engineer who made a fortune. Built factories and managed foreign trades for them.
         "My father inherited his status and some of his contacts. When I was a child we had a summer dacha at Nikolina Gora. We had gourmet foods. Imported shoes, fine clothing.
         "Mother and I were allowed to go with him on missions abroad. Of course I knew that most other people were not so well off, but it didn't bother me." (2)

Some readers may find this distracting, while others may say you forgot the closing quote. Trust me; it’s the proper way. If you still feel uncomfortable doing so, there are ways to avoid the situation. For example, in the preceding story, the author could have put an end-quote on the first paragraph and begun the second with:

a) an introductory clause.

         "In other words," she continued, "my father inherited his status and some of his contacts."

b) some slight action.

         She frowned before continuing. "My father inherited his status and some of his contacts."

c) another character saying a few words.

         "How did your father get his start?" I asked.
         "My father inherited his status and some of his contacts."

British English Differences

British English differs slightly from American English in two respects, dialog and the use of dashes.


Both double quotes and single quotes are used. Double quotes, like American English, were the standard, but that practice is changing. You still see double quotes in British English but more often you see single quotes.

Some people labor under the false assumption that punctuation occurs outside the quotation marks. This is not true. As in American English, all punctuation occurs inside the quotation marks.

In American English, speech after a tag is always capitalized. In British English, continuation of speech after a tag does not usually start with a capital letter, though it may. It all depends on the punctuation mark which precedes the resumption of direct speech (3).

         'Sit down,' he said, 'and tell me all about it.'
         'Sit down,' he said. 'Tell me all about it.'


British English takes much longer for the change to occur from hyphenation to compound words. Consequently, you will find more hyphenated words. Another departure is that spaces continue to be used around all forms that represent the Em-Dash.

The quoted sentence below highlights the compound words, quotation marks, and dashes in British English. It's from Allan Massie, a currently popular British author.

'I'd be grateful,' -- the judge laid stress on the word -- 'if you would co-operate with him.' (4)

Note four items: (1) cooperate is hyphenated, (2) single quotation marks are used, (3) punctuation is enclosed within the quotation marks, and (4) the Em-Dash is surrounded by spaces.


(1) Johnson, Samuel. "Letter to Dr. Charles Burney." 1755.

(2) Williamson, Jack. Firechild. Tor Books. 1987.

(3) Phythian, B.A. Teach Yourself Correct English. Teach Yourself Books. 2010.

(3) Massie, Allan. Dark Summer in Bordeaux. 2012.


Browne, R.; King, D. "Self-editing for Fiction Writers", Writers Digest: 1(2006):36.

Capital Community College Foundation, "Guide to Grammar and Writing" <http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/index2.htm>.

Harris, Robert. "A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices." VirtualSalt. 6 April 2005. <http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm>.

Tuten, Nancy; Swanson, Gale. "Get It Write." 2007. <http://www.getitwriteonline.com/index.htm>.
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