Critique Technique, Part 53 — Punctuation

Humanoid image surrounded by question marks

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

By Ross B. Lampert

Perhaps as much as spelling, punctuation can be a wonder and a mystery to a lot of novice writers. School teachers try to teach their students all sorts of 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.

Harvey’s take on punctuation is simple: punctuation exists simply 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; 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.

Character versus Narrator: This one’s easy. Beginning and ending quotation marks distinguish a character’s external speech from the writer’s narration. Some writers use italicized text to show a character’s thoughts, some don’t. I prefer to italicize interior monologue myself because, like quotation marks, it makes clear what’s thought and what’s narrative.

Pauses: 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 in his reading, 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 in his reading too.)

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. But the best thing 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. (No, I’m not getting paid for that plug. I just believe it.)

How do you use this information as a reviewer? If you adopt the concept of using punctuation to control pauses, then it’s easy enough to discuss that idea with your authors and show them when and why different marks are appropriate. Reading the work out loud, especially using different marks—or no marks: comma versus no comma—and comparing how they change how a passage sounds, can be especially effective. As for the quotation marks, apostrophe, and some of the others, I guess it’s just best to make the corrections and take the time to explain why you made them.

Writers MUST master punctuation. It’s a basic task of the trade and one that will always separate the amateurs from the professionals.

Got any thoughts? Please share them in the comments section below.

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