Critique Technique, Part 51 — Punctuation

Humanoid image surrounded by question marks
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Perhaps as much as spelling, punctuation can be a wonder and a mystery to a lot of novice writers. Schools try to teach their students all sorts of punctuation rules. If you really dig into it, there are hundreds of them—and of course they all have their exceptions and caveats. After a while, many students just give up, and it shows.

I thought I had a good, workable handle on what to use, when, and how until I went to one of my friend Harvey Stanbrough’s seminars, and then the light bulb really came on. One of the best things you as a reviewer can do is buy yourself a copy of Harvey’s ebook, Punctuation for Writers. It’s available on Amazon for the Kindle, Barnes & Noble for the Nook, and Smashwords for everything else, and it’ll be the best $9.99 you’ve spent in a long time. (I’m not getting paid for that plug. I just believe it.)

The Purpose of Punctuation

Harvey’s take on punctuation is simple: punctuation exists to help the reader understand what she’s reading. Try this and you’ll see what I mean:

I dont understand why punctuation is so important Alice said it just confuses me really I thought is she serious Im serious there are so many rules so you mean you dont want people to understand what youre writing I said

Whew! It took a lot of extra work to figure that out, didn’t it?

Punctuation clarifies writing in a number of ways:

  • It tells the reader when to pause and for how long;
  • It clarifies when a character is speaking versus when the narrator is narrating;
  • It can clarify when elements in a list are connected and when they aren’t; and
  • In certain cases it clarifies the emotional tone of a statement.

That’s it! Let’s take those points in reverse order.

Emotional tone or content

Along with italics for emphasis and the content of the text itself, the period, question mark, and exclamation point identify whether a character or the narrator is just delivering information or if there’s something more to their state of mind. The ellipsis, those three dots in a row (…), can show uncertainty because it identifies when a speaker trails off without finishing what they were going to say, or they pause before continuing.

Novice writers think that when they need to show a character experiencing strong emotion, they need to “pump up the jam” by using multiple exclamation points, an exclamation point plus a question mark, or even the combined symbol, the interrobang ( ‽ ). This is not true. The tone of the writing itself, the words used, and if really necessary, italics are all that’s needed.

Character versus Narrator

This one’s easy. Beginning and ending quotation marks distinguish a character’s external speech from the writer’s narration. I’ll have more to say on this in a minute.

Some writers use italicized text to show a character’s thoughts, some don’t. I prefer to italicize interior monologue because, like quotation marks, it makes clear what’s thought and what’s narrative.


There’s been a never-ending discussion on whether or not writers should use the Oxford or serial comma. This comma follows the next-to-last element in a list, falling just before the conjunction. I personally favor using the Oxford comma because there are cases where confusion can result if you don’t know whether the last two items in a list are separate or belong together. One of the very best examples of this is the title of Lynn Truss’s book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Let’s look closely at it.


By Harvey’s reckoning, there are three kinds of pauses:

  • Short, created by the comma;
  • Medium, created by the em dash (the long dash: —) and semicolon; and
  • Long, created by the period, question mark, exclamation point, and colon.

So, whenever the author wants her reader to pause, all she needs to do is decide how long the pause should be and the choice of which mark to use is all but made. (Note that Harvey considers the ellipsis a form of “spelling punctuation,” yet he also acknowledges it as creating a pause in a character’s speech, which means the reader pauses too.)

Punctuation Around Dialogue

Punctuating the text in and around dialogue is a task I see a lot of novice writers struggle with. They don’t know what action beats and dialogue tags are, the differences between them, or how to punctuate them and the dialogue they’re connected to.

Simply stated, a dialogue tag identifies the character and may identify how they said what they said. An action beat identifies the character by describing something they do before, during, or after the words they say or think.

Action beats are usually complete sentences, so they’re usually separated from the dialogue near them by one of the full-stop punctuation marks: a period, question mark, exclamation point, or em dash.

Dialogue tags are not complete sentences, so they’re separated by shorter pauses, usually denoted by a comma.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, so I’ve developed a two-page guide just for punctuating around dialogue. Click here to download a copy for yourself.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are another kind of spelling punctuation that causes no end of confusion, especially for novice writers. Should a writer put quotes around words or phrases she wants to emphasize? What about around titles of books, articles, pieces of music, etc.? When should a writer use single quotes or double quotes around and within dialogue? What about interior monologue?

Answering these questions could fill a whole article by itself. I don’t want to do that, or make this one any longer than it already is, so I’ll try to be very concise, using Stanbrough’s book as my reference.

The Apostrophe

There’s one other mark that I need to mention here because so many novices use it incorrectly: the apostrophe ( ’ ). The apostrophe has two basic functions:

  • To show when letters have been removed from words to make a contraction: can not or cannot being shortened to can’t, for example, and
  • To show possession: the dog’s chew toy, Alice’s Restaurant.

Some writers try to use the apostrophe to indicate plurals—like, two apple’s—but that’s just flat wrong unless the apples possess something, in which case the text should have been two apples’ anyway. On rare occasion, though, when needed for clarity, using an apostrophe to show a plural is OK.

And then there’s it’s (“it is,” contracted) and its (the possessive form of “it”). I don’t see that there’s any way around this one: just memorize the difference and be done with it.

There are other punctuation marks I haven’t addressed here—the various forms of parentheses and the various kinds of dashes besides the em dash—to name a few.

Questions for You

How can you use this information as a reviewer? Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you review a piece.

  • Does the author seem not to have a basic understanding of punctuation’s purpose and how it should be used? If this is the case, unfortunately, they probably need some remedial training that is usually beyond what a critique group does.
  • Does the author know the difference between how the ellipsis and em dash should be used?
  • Does the author use multiple exclamation points or an exclamation point with a question mark?
  • Does the author have trouble with punctuating dialogue, dialogue tags, and action beats?
  • Are they inconsistent or confused about whether to use the Oxford or serial comma?
  • Do they use the apostrophe incorrectly?

If you adopt the concept of using punctuation to control pauses, then it’s easy to help your authors learn when and why different marks are appropriate. As for the non-pause marks—quotation marks, apostrophes, and some of the others—it’s best to just make the corrections and take the time to explain why you made them. Or refer them to Harvey’s book.

Writers must master punctuation. It’s a basic skill and one that will always separate the amateurs from the professionals.

Got any suggestions on how to critique punctuation? Don’t pause… get right to the point and share them in the comments box below!

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