Rules of Punctuation

Once you've chosen the right verbs and nouns, trimmed the unneeded adverbs and adjectives from your sentences, and made sure your pronouns match their antecedents, you'll need to check for punctuation missteps.

Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Points

Most sentences end with one of the following three basic forms of punctuation:

1. Periods: Used at the end of declarative sentences, as well as at the end of sentences that ask indirect questions; no additional period is required if the last word in the sentence already has a period (as in an abbreviation).

a. The dog crouched down and began to bark.

b. Tom wants to know who ate the ice cream.

c. “Shanna, if you don't hurry, you'll be late for P.E.”

2. Question marks: Used at the end of questions.

a. Will Samantha and Derek find true love?

b. “Are you ready to go?”

3. Exclamation points: Used at the end of sharply worded commands.

a. “Stop, thief!”

b. “Fire!”

Limit your use of exclamation points. Ideally, this type of punctuation should only be used for short, sharply worded commands or rebukes.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are used to identify direct quotations. Generally, the other punctuation marks will go inside them.

  • “Thanks,” Martin said.

  • “Are you sure you can trust him?” Jim asked.

  • “Wait,” Betty said, “I'm coming with you.”

When placing a second quotation inside a quote — e.g., “Michael's exact words were, ‘Tell her I'll be back.’” — use a single quotation mark for the second quote.

Dialogue tags, such as said or asked, identify who is speaking. The comma is the most used punctuation with a dialogue tag — e.g., “Okay,” she said — but the question mark can be used when a character asks a question. Because the tag is part of the main sentence, always place a single space between the dialogue and the dialogue tag.

Ellipses, Em Dashes, and Parentheses

Some punctuation marks can show a break in action or offer an aside comment to the reader. An ellipsis mark, which is “ …” or three periods separated by three spaces, is used to show a pause or gradual fading away in thought or dialogue. Em dashes ( — ) or a long dash without spaces on either side of it, can be used in the place of commas, colons, semicolons, or parentheses. They can also be used to show an abrupt cessation of action. Parentheses, the two ( ) on your keyboard, show an aside comment, or offer additional information.

  • “Paul … I'm sorry,” Mary said.

  • “I had hoped that we …” Alyssa bit her lip and looked away.

  • “What are you — ?” Jessica screamed.

  • They rode the Tilt-a-Whirl twice. (Three times but Jessie wasn't counting.)

Semicolons and Colons

Semicolons and colons are rarely used in fiction. The semicolon (;) is used to separate two complete sentences that haven't been joined by a conjunction (and, but, or). The colon (:) is used at the end of a complete sentence to introduce a list of items, or between two strong clauses that reference each other.

  • I wrote the letter to my boss on Monday; I tore it up the following day.

  • My goal was simple: Find the killer before the killer found me.

  • I had a short to-do list: Pick up the cat from the vet's office, drop off the laundry, and pay the electric bill.

Commas

Commas serve a variety of functions in fiction. They can separate lists, introduce clauses, and attribute a direct quotation to a speaker, among other things. The following general rules apply when using a comma:

1. Use a comma when your sentence starts with a subordinate clause, which is a clause that cannot stand on its own as a sentence.

a. As you know, Gregg moved to Cleveland.

b. “Aside from the ending, what did you think of the movie?”

2. Use a comma to separate two clauses joined by a conjunction.

a. Martin took the afternoon off to go fishing, and he didn't feel the least bit guilty.

b. “I may have robbed the gas station, but I didn't kill nobody,” Bobby said.

3. Use a comma to separate lists or series.

a. Theresa, Mary, and Kathleen waited outside the church for Peter to arrive.

b. We gave Paul a baseball, a bat, and a catcher's mitt for his birthday.

4. Use a comma to introduce or pause during a direct quotation.

a. “Maybe,” Jane said, “but I don't think so.”

b. “I'm ready to go whenever you are,” Micki said.

Commas can also be inserted to set off a direct address — e.g., “I'm glad you could join us, Maxine” — among other uses. Avoid comma mishaps, though, such as comma splices, which happen when you use a comma to connect two complete sentences. (A comma and a conjunction is the proper format in that instance, or a semicolon.)

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  3. The Mechanics of Writing Well
  4. Rules of Punctuation
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