Some time ago, Shelley Chappell wrote us a good post on Punctuation and Grammar.
But here is a concise break-down for quick and easy reference.
- All first lines of dialogue by a different speaker should begin on a new line.
- Speech marks, either double or single (but be consistent) frame the passage of speech, in most cases, curling towards it. Other punctuation (full stop, comma, question mark etc) goes within these speech marks:
“I really like ice cream.”
- Use a comma if a speech tag follows:
“I really like ice cream,” said Felicity.
- Use a full stop if a non-speech verb follows:
“I really like ice cream.” Felicity grinned.
- Speech tags that follow directly after the closing speech mark should always be lower case, as they’re continuing the sentence, even when your writing program wants to capitalise them:
“I really like ice cream!” said Felicity.
- If another sentence follows, but is not a continuation of the first, then a full stop should precede it:
“I really like ice cream!” said Felicity. “I’m gonna have a goodie gumdrops.”
- But if it’s a continuation of the first sentence, it should be preceded by a comma:
“I think,” said Felicity, “I’m gonna have a goodie gumdrops.”
- If your character is quoting another character in dialogue, then the quote will be in the other form of quotation marks (in this case, single quotes).
“Mother always said, ‘you are what you eat’. In which case, I must be delicious.”
Now for some more complex punctuation, but be aware that not everyone agrees on how this should be done. Different style manuals suggest different ways in which to write your ellipses. One guide, the MLA, indicates [ . . . ]; the Chicago Style indicates [ … ] for omissions; the Australian Style Guide suggests [ … ] as well. Whichever you choose to use, the most important thing is be consistent.
- Ellipses should be used to indicate a pause in speech
“I think I’ll have the goodie gum drops … or maybe a chocolate mint.”
- Or when the person’s train of conversation just trails off
“My favourite flavour? Now that’s a difficult question. I guess it must be …”
- If a speaker is abruptly cut off or interrupted, dialogue should terminate in an em-dash:
“Or perhaps I’ll have a chocolate mi—”
“For goodness sake! Choose one already. Mine’s melted.”
The only punctuation after the closing em-dash should be the speech marks.
Without modifying phrases, our writing would be very sparse – possibly bland. Modifying phrases are those parts of a sentence that ‘modify’ or describe the basic sense. Pretty much everybody uses them. But how to convey them on paper with the appropriate punctuation?
Two common mistakes are made with modifying phrases:
- A full-stop is used instead of a comma
- A semi-colon is used instead of a comma
In other words, modifying phrases need commas! They need to be closely attached to the main part of the sentence they are modifying.
Here are some examples of mistakes with modifying phrases:
- Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood, with his black and white fur. His pink tongue and wagging tail.
- The house was tidy; its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away.
Remember the rules for full-stops and semi-colons?
A sentence following a full-stop or a semi-colon has to make sense by itself – it has to have a verb.
- ‘His pink tongue and wagging tail’ doesn’t tell us anything – we have to ask what about these things? A verb for sense is missing (don’t be confused by the presence of ‘wagging’! Yes, it’s a ‘doing word’ and tells us what his tail is doing but it doesn’t create sense for the combined subject of tongue and tail).
- In the second sentence, ‘its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away’ also lacks any sense – because this is a modifying phrase: it’s meant to modify the subject, verb and object ‘the house was tidy’. Without this statement in front of it, the phrase about carpets and toys makes no sense. Therefore it doesn’t stand alone and it can’t follow a semi-colon.
Properly written, modifying phrases are always attached by commas to the sense they are modifying:
- Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood, with his black and white fur, his pink tongue and wagging tail. [This sentence has two modifying phrases, both modifying the statement ‘Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood’]
- The house was tidy, its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away. [The modifying phrase in this sentence modifies the statement ‘the house was tidy’.]
Do you think you’ve got the hang of modifying phrases? Post a question if you’re not sure!
The semi-colon stakes a claim as the most misunderstood punctuation mark in the English language. That’s probably because it is the one that people see the least. And when they do see it, it’s often not being used correctly.
What to know about the semi-colon:
1. It looks like a comma and so is often mistakenly used to fill in for one. Part of the problem is that semi-colons can actually be used to fill in for commas – but only in a list.
2. The rest of the time, semi-colons are more closely related to colons: ‘semi’ apparently comes from the Latin term ‘half’, and means ‘partially’, ‘somewhat’, or ‘having some of the characteristics of’ whatever it is referring to. So the semi-colon is a little bit like a colon. Keep this in mind and you might have some luck with it – if you’re not writing a list, a semi-colon cannot be used an alternative to a comma.
The semi-colon is rare because there are only two circumstances in which it should be used:
1. When you are joining two independent sentences.
The semi-colon is not like a comma because commas are never used for joining independent sentences. If they are, what is created is called a ‘run-on sentence’ or ‘comma splice’.
Independent sentences (clauses that make sense by themselves and contain a subject and verb) should be separated with a full-stop or joined with a conjunction. However, sometimes you can join them with a semi-colon instead of a full-stop. The time to do that is when the sentences are linked by their content in some close way. This is how the semi-colon acts as a sort of colon – if the first sentence was followed by a colon, the second sentence would explain the first in some way. With a semi-colon between them, two sentences are also closely linked contextually, but not at that specific explanatory level.
Here are some examples:
- I walk to the park every Sunday morning; the gates open at ten.
- She looked at me as though I was a monster; I felt my stomach sink.
The test for using a semi-colon in sentence structure is – could you replace it with a full-stop? If the answer is yes, then it is ok to use it. If the answer is no, then please don’t use it!
2. When you are listing something
I think most people know that when you are about to list a whole bunch of stuff, you signal that with a colon. Normally, things in a list are separated by commas. But, sometimes, it is appropriate to use semi-colons instead. This is the only time when a semi-colon can stand in for a comma. And it is only used this way when the items in the list could become confused (or confusing) due to the use of commas for additional phrases. For example:
- She gave me her shopping list: apples, pears, bread, milk, chocolate, and biscuits. [commas are fine; a semi-colon isn’t needed!]
- She gave me her shopping list: apples to give to Joseph and make pies for Saturday; pears for Aunty Flo and the baking contest; bread for sandwiches for the picnic; milk, even though she knows Toby can’t drink it and Stephanie doesn’t like it; chocolate for me, because she knows I can’t live without it, although she’s been trying to get me to stop eating it for several weeks; and biscuits, which we have to stock up on, because when Nana visits she goes ballistic if she can’t have something to dunk in her tea. [without the semi-colons to separate list items, the reader could easily become confused]
Feeling more confident about semi-colons now? Want a second opinion about some sentences you have in mind? Don’t hesitate to post here for some help!
We’ve all heard it said that what agents and publishers really want is someone who can write a good story. It’s the story that matters, the story that will make or break a publishing deal. And I’ve no doubt that is true.
But I’m sure we’ve also all heard it said that first impressions count. And, while it might be nice to think that we can just leave all that grammar and punctuation stuff to some future editor, it pays to make as positive an impression as possible to make sure that future editor will one day be secured. For sloppy grammar and punctuation is often a red flag for sloppy writing. And when you’ve only got a short space in which to convince a potential agent or publisher to continue reading your work, why not make the best impression you can?
For those of us raised in a school system that didn’t teach more than the basics of grammar and punctuation, the whole concept of getting good at it seems daunting. Many New Zealand English speakers don’t start to get a feeling for the grammar of their own language (let alone an adequate vocabulary to discuss it) until they start learning another. So most of us simply write as we speak – instinctively. But there are some useful tips we can learn to polish our grammar and punctuation skills. Which is lucky for us – because if we want to catch that agent/publisher’s eye, we want our writing to shine brighter than a rough diamond.
First tip coming up!