Punctuated Equilibrium

Not long ago, I read a book on an aspect of writing craft (not writing mechanics, which is what I'm covering here, but a particular storytelling skill). It had some good content, but it was poorly organised, and the punctuation was practically random. It read as if the author didn't know when to use specific punctuation marks, so she just shoved one in every so often and hoped for the best.

This isn't a good strategy.

In this chapter, I'll cover all of the common punctuation marks except for the apostrophe and capital letter (which I've covered already) and the comma (which I'll cover later). I'm going to do a separate chapter on punctuating dialog, so this chapter won't go into detail about how to do that.

What I will cover is: the colon; the semicolon; the hyphen; the dash; the parenthesis; the ellipsis; the question mark; the exclamation mark; and the period or full stop.

Colons and Semicolons

I've just demonstrated one way to use the colon and semicolon in that previous sentence.

A colon introduces a list. A semicolon can be used (instead of a comma) to separate items in a list. It's especially useful if some of the items in the list have commas in them, because then it's clear when you've started a new item:

I saw three groups: my sisters; my brother, his wife, and their children; and my parents.

Just then, I used a colon to introduce an example. That's more something you'd do in nonfiction than in fiction.

The other way to use a colon is like this: after a grammatically complete phrase (one that could stand on its own as a sentence), which introduces another phrase and completes the thought. Make sure that the introductory phrase could stand on its own as a sentence, though. This is a fancy technique. Use it carefully, and only if you fully understand it.

Style guides differ on whether you should use a capital letter (that you wouldn't otherwise use) after a colon. Generally, you're safe not using the capital. Just be consistent.

As well as separating objects in lists, semicolons can be used as balance points; they can join together two complete sentences that contrast or, together, form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Again, that last sentence was an example of what it described.) I used to do this all the time, but my friends kindly pointed out that it sounds pretentious, and I eventually got over it. My advice is to do it only for deliberate effect.


Hyphens do two main jobs. They join together compound nouns and compound adjectives.

Compound nouns are made up of two or more words that are thought of as a single unit, but haven't quite fused into a single word (the formal term for fusing into a single word is being "styled closed"). It's always a good idea to check in whatever dictionary or style guide you use as your reference what the styling is for a particular compound noun. This is because there aren't any specific rules. You just have to make a call and then be consistent (and always looking it up in the same dictionary or style guide will ensure you're consistent). For example, "ink well," "inkwell" and "ink-well" are all valid.

By the way, for some compound words, styling them open (with a space) is incorrect or misleading. For example, "everyday" means something different from "every day". ("Everyday" is an adjective, meaning boring and routine, while "every day" means "on a daily basis". People often confuse the two.) If in any doubt at all, look it up.

Compound adjectives occur when you string together a number of words (not all of which are necessarily adjectives themselves) to describe a noun:

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The British rule is that you should always use the hyphens. The American rule is that you only need to use them when not using them would be ambiguous. My view is that if you use them all the time, then you don't have to think about whether not using them would make your words ambiguous.

For example, there's a difference between a heavy-metal detector (which detects heavy metals) and a heavy metal detector (which detects metals, and is heavy). There's a difference between a stolen property report (a report about a property, and the report has been stolen) and a stolen-property report (a report about some stolen property).

A common example of the compound-adjective pattern (see what I just did?) is this:

A two-year-old child.

Make sure you use both hyphens, as a two-year old child is, technically, a child that is both old and "two-year," whatever that means.

English being English, you can drop out the well-understood noun and talk about a two-year-old. But if you're saying "the child is two years old," don't use the hyphens, because then it isn't a compound adjective--it's not modifying a noun.

Also, don't hyphenate compounds including "very" or adverbs:

A very important meeting

A richly endowed foundation

(Good style advice is to avoid very in any case, and think of a stronger adjective in the first place: a vital meeting, for example. But sometimes very has its place.)

There's one other place that I often see authors leaving hyphens out: the numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine inclusive. If you spell these numbers out, make sure to include the hyphens.

Dashes and Parentheses

In a manuscript, a dash is indicated by two hyphens following one another, with no space between and no space before or after:

Word processing programs will often change this into an em dash, which looks like this:

For purposes of submitting your manuscript, either turn them all into dashes (or let your word processing program do it), or else leave them all as double hyphens. Don't mix the two up.

If you're self-publishing, convert them all to proper dashes. Make sure they're the wider em dashes, not the shorter en dashes which are used, in typography, between two numbers to indicate a range.

Parentheses are sometimes called round brackets, and look like this:

Dashes and parentheses do the same job. They separate off a part of the sentence where you are (in effect) interrupting yourself to add some more detail--necessary or not--before getting back to your main point. And I've just demonstrated them both in one clumsy sentence.

If you're using dashes and parentheses in this way, make sure that you could remove the whole section that they surround and the remaining sentence would still make complete grammatical sense.

The choice between dashes and parentheses is a matter of style and emphasis. You can also use parenthetical commas in the same way, but I'll talk about that in a later chapter.

You can use a single dash to indicate that someone has interrupted themselves:

Have you seen--oh, hello, Colin.

Do not use a single parenthesis under any circumstances. If you open them, make sure you close them. Don't leave your readers hanging.


An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) consists of three dots:

It is not two dots. It is not six dots. It is not however many dots you feel like typing at the time. It is three dots.

If it's at the end of the sentence, it should be followed by a period or full stop, making four dots in all.

An ellipsis, like a single dash, indicates that someone has interrupted themselves, or trailed off, leaving the thought incomplete....

Ending a Sentence

There are three punctuation marks which you can use to end a sentence in English. Use one, and only one, of them for any given sentence.

The question mark is used to mark the end of a sentence which is a question:

But how did the bear get into the Jeffries tube?

Always use it if your sentence is a question. It takes precedence over the exclamation mark. If your sentence is both a question and an exclamation, use the question mark (not the exclamation mark, and certainly not both).

Do not use it if your sentence is not a question:

He asked how the bear got in the Jeffries tube.

Here, someone is asking a question, but you are not phrasing the sentence as a question, so it does not get a question mark.

Use one question mark, not two, not three, not however many you feel like typing at the time.

The exclamation mark indicates that a sentence (which is not a question) is an exclamation. As a general rule, only use it in dialog. You should not be exclaiming your narrative. It makes you sound overexcited.

Use only one exclamation mark, not two, not three, not however many you feel like typing at the time.

The period or full stop ends a sentence which is not a question or an exclamation.

Use only one full stop. Three full stops make an ellipsis (see above). If you put an ellipsis at the end of the sentence, add a full stop for a total of four dots.

A poorly punctuated manuscript or book feels choppy and awkward, and the reader will be distracted from the story by trying to figure out what the author means. In a well-punctuated text, the punctuation disappears into the background, as it should. Most readers won't know why it feels smooth and professionally written, but it will.

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