A corner building in a popular inner west surburb of Sydney that houses a real estate office and café sold under the hammer for $5.5 million at Burgess
How can I write better? I’m well educated but overlook the use of proper punctuation so my writing suffers.
I used to feel extraordinarily insecure about my punctuation. But I thank my old self for going pale at the thought of any punctuation mark more bizarre than the comma.
And a thousand days a year I thank my old self for not running from my writing chair to my La-Z-Boy.
Punctuation matters; it helps your writing move in rhythm. But if performers play ugly music, none of their beautiful dance moves will impress the audience.
So punctuation matters last.
Imagine the Temptations sliding all over the stage to the song you hate most. Their smooth moves would somehow make the noise louder.
But soon they regroup in the studio to find their sound, Eddie Kendrick sings in his silky falsetto, “It was just my imagination, once again! Runnin’ away with me! Ooooooooh!” and the other members are spinning like slow motion dreidels. And you won’t want to miss their next concert.
Your caring about punctuation shows that you care about your work; all aspects of writing, great and small, will indeed affect your performance. But obviously, the great aspects will affect it greatly more than the small ones.
The Temptations’ ability to hover half an inch above the stage played a big role in their success as a band. So why did I call punctuation, the metaphor for their dancing, “small” and say it “matters last”? Because you can learn new dance moves at any time. Also, people will inevitably help you with the choreography.
Your good editor will tell you where your punctuation doesn’t mark the spot; I see no substitute for a set of wise eyes that aren’t your own looking at your work. Find the best editor you can. Regardless of price. Some very good ones cost less than others who miss costly errors. But don’t make the error of looking for the lowest cost.
Writers tend to have the right sized books in their pockets instead of money, and empty wallets require full imaginations. But you can get the best editor with only dozens of dollars. Maybe for only dozens of minutes. But each minute will count for twelve of an uncaring editor’s.
Sometimes you should give your editor a fast first or second draft—a few pages at a time even (and from a small sample, you can reverse engineer those fixes onto your larger manuscript—saving yourself money with your editor’s lessened labor); masking your problems might hide them from her. Let her see all your weaknesses, so that she can help you see them, too. (I work with a very talented female editor, so I tend to use the feminine pronoun for all editors.)
Then get another good editor because six eyes are better than four. Usually.
In the meantime, understand that while there is a segment of educated readers that might judge your punctuation, their opinions mean much less than they realize. As you have mentioned in your question, good writing is not born of a college education; it is born of years and years of wielding the pen. Those people who think they know exactly where you missed a comma are simply wrong—most of the time.
I don’t like pointing at people and saying, “You’re wrong.” But the people in the direction of my finger started this childish game, so na na na boo boo back to them!
Academic writing often has a style guide requirement. Most colleges pick one guide or another and have all their students write by its rules, which are wrong things in writing. And there are several style guides for American academic writing, and the rules in one guide will often contradict those in another. In fact, some of them have unique rules.
The educated people who are judging your punctuation are usually doing so out of limited knowledge. Regardless of how many college courses they’ve taken, people who have more concern for your punctuation than they do for what you’re saying have much to learn about critiquing the written word. At the height of irony, they are proving the point of the saying “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
But despite my finger-pointing, I can’t judge these educated people (and bear in mind, most educated people understand that punctuation does not define the writing); to a lesser extent, I used to share their bad attitudes. After first reading Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I would silently believe that anyone who wasn’t following the authors’ advice didn’t know what they were doing. Take a guess as to whether or not I was correct.
The point is, don’t listen to anyone who dismisses your writing based on punctuation—or any kind of formal rules. Especially don’t listen to yourself when you do so. I’m going to take a leap and guess that you, the asker, are doing the same thing that I used to do: You’re kicking yourself for not knowing the elusive “punctuation rules.” If I guessed right, then you need to stop immediately. . . . Ask yourself this: If there were only one way to do punctuation, wouldn’t everyone know it? We all know what two plus two is. Because there is only one way to do it: add two to two and get four. But both luckily and sadly, punctuation doesn’t work like two plus two.
Think of some activities that you do frequently. Pick one that many other people do, also. . . . You probably do a few things within that activity in a way that works for you but would’t for everyone else. The same will hold true of your punctuation use. You have to get familiar with punctuation marks as a carpenter’s apprentice has to get familiar with certain tools. All carpenters learn their own tricks with each tool.
Lovers of reading and writing are probably looking at your punctuation, but they are looking at everything you say first. So make what you say your first focus.
Below is a list of advices and information on writing in general with a strong focus on punctuation. It has poetic elements just for fun. Actually, they add more than fun.
- As said, don’t worry about your punctuation. Everything I have written thus far in this answer has the same purpose: to emphasize the first sentence herein number 1. (Learning your unique use of punctuation will probably take a few years; as you become a better writer, your style will change, your rhythms will change, your mind will change. These changes need to happen. Over time. Let them and don’t doubt your own maturation because some snooty reader thinks that good writing means x amount of commas or insert random pretentious rule.
- Learn what each punctuation mark does. I’ll help. Because helping you will help me help me. I neither suggest nor discourage you from reading in one sitting this entire answer. But I do suggest reading it again after sitting on its information for a while. And again. And after you become more aware of the the punctuation marks’ functionalities, you will begin to see that they interact with each other in infinite ways—some of them infinitely surprising. No answer can answer for infinite scenarios; this one doesn’t try to. But it tries to answer for some common ones. And the more commonly you practice good punctuation, the better you’ll be at getting better at it. And each new scenario will seem less intimidating until you lose fear for any new one. And you will write more words. Because you’ll worry less and less about the weird shapes that go between them.
- The period stops the sentence. A stop is a small break for the reader. How many small breaks does a reader need? To figure out the answer, you’ll often need to play around with sentence length while imagining yourself as a reader. You might have to do so several times—perhaps only to realize that you must start over. Oh well. That’s writing. (As a side note, some linguists argue that sentences are unique to writing because speech has no periods.)
- The comma makes a pause but not a full stop because the reader knows that whatever is coming will change or add to what came before the comma. Look at this sentence: “In this world of color, I see only darkness.” As the reader, your mind didn’t get to relax after the comma because you instinctively knew that what came before it didn’t really say anything. But your eyes have trained your mind to take the shortest vacation when they see the period; the reader’s brain needs that moment to reflect on whether or not the sentence’s parts change its whole. “I ate an apple that I couldn’t swallow.” In a purely literal sense, that sentence has a paradox because eating requires swallowing. The period caused the stop as always, but the language in your brain’s reflection caused a hold in addition to the stop. It won’t for this sentence. I meant that last one. See? You stop at the stop for an intuitive amount of time unless the language surpasses intuition; with a paradox, the brain needs time to figure out how an open door locks people out. Here’s a revision: “I ate an apple that I couldn’t swallow, and I am lucky to be alive.” The first statement proves figurative after the second (yes, after not with); the person choked on the apple but survived. You know that because your brain added the sums to understand the whole sentence was bigger—then it moved on. (Making a bigger whole is usually wonderful and preferable, but a sum equal to the whole will sometimes have more gravity than its opposite—making it preferable.) The more figurative the language before the period, the longer the stop it demands. And the shorter the distance between the language and a paradox, the closer the stop approaches full-length. And probably a reread. And so, figurative rich language probably does require quicker periods, but barely. Very barely. And by that, I mean you should never consider a faster period for figurative language. Instead, wait for the language to ask you for one. It will do so very rarely and ask for a period barely faster when it does. With overuse, the period bores the mind with unnecessary reflection; with underuse, the period frustrates the mind with an awkward rhythm of concentration. But all good songs must end. Imagine the opposite. Torture. You should vary tempos beautifully, but you must end each song before it becomes a lullaby that puts the listener to sleep. A sleep-inducing song might sound nice, but not when you need your listeners to listen. Yet how do you end their concentration for the purposes of keeping it? With an impossible ending. A sentence fragment. Like this sentence and the one before it. A sentence fragment has no ending; it is only a contuation. An echo of what came before it. It usually dislikes the exclamation point because nothing in writing likes to try too hard, and the previous sentence has already punctuated the sentence fragment to some extent. (One frequent exception is the beginning of a paragraph. Imagine one that starts with this sentence fragment: A far cry! . . . Writing that made me want to finish the paragraph. But if you replaced its exclamation point with a period, that sentence fragment would be a far cry from its emphatic original version.) And so, the period is the sentence fragment’s friend (with exceptions, of course). And vice versa because the sentence fragment gives the period a second power: the power to make a sentence out of not a sentence. And the second power gives the period’s a first power a distinction. Sometimes the period has extra power when it is the sentence’s only punctuation mark. Look at this sentence: “I see only darkness in this world of color.” Which do you prefer, that revision or the original version above? Remember that the period can have extra power when it is a sentence’s only punctuation mark. But what I haven’t told you is that a comma can also have extra power. Unless you have unusually strong feelings about the comma, I have asked you a trick question; you don’t yet have enough information to say which version is better. Neither intrinsically sounds superior to the other, and so choosing between them becomes a situational matter. Say that you’re choosing between them for a line some play you’re writing—say your villain’s line. If your villain has abrasive tendencies, I would suggest comma-less choice; if your villain has the tendency to plot out every move he makes, I would suggest the one with the comma. Pausing speech can work as an analogy for a cautious mind; unpausing speech can do the same for an impulsive one. And so, writing dialogue can help you learn new ways to write. And thinking about punctuation can give you insight into your storytelling. And you’re always telling a story when you’re writing. No matter what you’re writing. I’ve said that before. I’ll say it again. You’re always telling a story when you’re writing. No matter what you’re writing.
- In general, no commas make for faster statements. One comma within a single statement (or clause) might provide it with a bit of drama; many commas might fill a single statement with melodrama. A comma joining two statements (a complex sentence) can do several things, sometimes all at once. Firstly, it makes for one less period. Choosing between the period and the comma requires your looking at several variables that will be unique to what and how you’re currently writing. I could never tell you all of the variables because they will be different with each sentence.
- Secondly, a comma that joins two statements can and often should insinuate a connection between them. When you’re making a compound statement, you should have at least one reason for not making them each their own sentence. Usually, “I’ve had too many short sentences in a row” isn’t good enough. In that case, you should probably ask yourself, “Why are all my sentences so short?” Shorter sentences work well, but when your sentences all become one length, none of them are shorter. Yet if you have good reason to make every sentence the same height, then do what you should always do in life: Use your good reasoning. When you write especially.
- When you’re punctuating, you’re trying to add to the tone of your writing rather than detract from it. If you’re writing a life or death fighting scene in which a character gets stabbed in the stomach, a period might make the knife seem to stick in the flesh; a comma might make the knife seem cocked and ready for another stab (the opposite could be true pending the language left of the punctuation). Whichever you choose, the next thing you write should fit with the most recent punctuation. Say you choose the period and believe that it indeed makes the knife seem to stick in the flesh, then the next sentence should not start out with the knife cocked and ready to stab again. Notice that I used the word “choose” near the head of that last sentence. The period is yes a stylistic choice. Not of whether or not you use it; of where you put it when you do. You must not ignore the period for its essentialness; you must recognize it for its essentialness—as you recognize love for its essentialness. No decision in writing is meaningless, and using no decisions prevents meaning. And where the period goes is one of a writer’s biggest decisions. Because it is perhaps the most frequent decision of all. And because it means something every time. Even when it must go right there; if the period must go there, then there means wrote the perfect thing to get there. Before and after making the dot, make sure the words to its left are right. Ask yourself what you want your readers to feel right now. Then ask yourself why you want that. Then ask yourself whether or not you could have a better want for a better reason. When you can answer “No” to that beautiful question, you are ready to write something true. As long as you had a full hesitation before answering. Strangely. And as long as you felt catharsis when you answered the pretty thing you asked. “No” can sound so lovely. Embrace the word. And claim its power for yourself so that it can never hurt you. Yes, do that. As a writer, you might as well fall in love with the word “no” because you will have many big dates with it in your writing life. It is only one word, and you can write thousands in a day. Accept “no” in your ear as “yes” to a different question.
- The semicolon [the thing between these parentheses (;)] does cool things when used correctly; it does nothing but confuse people when used incorrectly. Some people think the semicolon is ugly; I don’t. Not when it isn’t set in the right place, anyway. And the way it looks actually tells you what it does; visually being a period (.) on top of a comma (,), the semicolon (;) serves a purpose between them. And when you have trouble choosing between a period and a comma, you should consider a semicolon.
- The semicolon can strengthen a purposeful opposition between neighboring statements. It does so in this sentence: “My head wants nothing to do with her; my heart wants to do everything with her.” You might have noticed that I used the singular “sentence” when introducing the example. I did so because a semicolon doesn’t technically make a new sentence. Which is cool because the statement on either side sounds like its own sentence without reading that way. Look at the same two statements as their own sentences: “My head wants nothing to do with her. My heart wants to do everything with her.” Visually, “My” capitalized at the beginning of each makes the statements look more similar. But as they oppose one another, making them look like one another can lessen the impact of each. The fact that “head” and “heart” share their first three letters makes the effect worse. (However, you might be able to find some way to make such a coincidence work in your favor—with help from the bookend sentences.) Verbally, the semicolon and the period don’t have so much difference; visually, they do.
- A semicolon can draw special attention to the statement on either side of it. If your readers ask themselves, “Why is that semicolon there?” they might feel a sense of accomplishment to find the answer. If they can’t find the answer, they have looked hard. With your every thoughtful use of the semicolon, your readers will better understand your thoughtfulness. There are few things that I am sure of in writing, and more than half of them are this one thing: When you make a thoughtful choice, your readers will always feel the thoughtfulness, even if they can’t define it.
- Another thing the semicolon can do is replace the word “because” as it does in this sentence: “I need to get home; I have a dog who has a small bladder.” And if we had used “because” instead of the semicolon, “I need to get home” would have felt less meaningful. If the person who wanted to get home had an unspoken reason for wanting to get home in addition to letting the dog out, the duality of the statement would make the semicolon even more meaningful. But if the only reason the person needs to get home is to let the dog out, then I might suggest reordering the statements like so: “I have a dog who has a small bladder; I need to get home.” Finally, if the person who needs to get home to the dog is being nothing but honest, I would change the sentence to something like this: “Unfortunately, my dog has a small bladder, and I have to go home.” Did you notice? No semicolon. Why not? Because neither statement has enough wealth to buy its own land. And the semicolon is the stake between two properties. In that last revision, the man without mystery uses the word “Unfortunately” and the phrase “have to go,” both of which are absent from the less honest versions. But in some fictional worlds, lies are more real and true than honesty. And by the way, I find the fully honest person so boring that I would never want to write for him or her again. One more thing, semicolons can get rid of entire phrases. “Only an apple would do; I remained hungry.” That sentence implies that other food was available but rejected. But turning the statements into sentences would not have. To imply the same thing, the now dual sentences would look like this: “Only an apple would do. Though there crackers, I didn’t eat them.” I couldn’t even say the exact same thing as I did in the original version; if I had said, “Only an apple would do. Though there were crackers, I remained hungry,” the statement could have implied that the speaker did indeed eat the crackers yet still craved an apple. The second version was longer, said less, and was less clear. As you see, the semicolon knife can cut the fat words.
- Words like “when” and “if” subordinate one statement under another; the semicolon fights for equality. Connecting while individualizing. Also, it shows causation or opposition or both. If you’re wondering how it might accomplish both, look at this sentence: “He moved in for a kiss; she recoiled with a hiss.” Clearly, “she” acts both because of and in opposition to the man who moved in for the kiss. And lastly, though the sentence about the person who needs to get home to the dog is an example of a semicolon’s insinuating causation, it doesn’t fully explain the benefits of the phenomenon; here’s another example sentence: “She told me she liked the picture I drew; I almost cried with happiness.” There, the semicolon denotes causation more clearly than the word “and” would. However, if I were writing a slightly different sentence, I might choose the compound sentence as I do here: “She thanked me for the portrait I drew of her, and I almost cried with happiness.” In terms of whether or not to use the semicolon, that sentence is as tough of a call I could come up with; the word “and” does not signify time, and no thing can precede its cause, just as people cannot be born before their parents. But some things can happen simultaneously with their cause. And in the revision, the tears could have happened simultaneously with the thank you if the cryer could tell that that the words were coming. . . . I must pause the analysis and add a layer to it. When used, great logic about small things increases your storytelling, but not when abused; there is a difference between writing with thoughtfulness and showcasing thoughtfulness with writing as the stage. There are a few exceptions, a noble one being showcasing someone else’s thoughtfulness—but the exception to that exception is when the someone else is one of your fictional characters; they are born of your own mind, and so you have to prove your charcters’ intelligence rather than show it off. You must cleverly disguise your own thoughtfulness. Readers are smart because they read, and they are proud of their intellect. They do not want you authors thinking that you’re smarter than them; if they get the impression that you do, they will dislike your work. You give them the product of your thoughtfulness—not the process. And your readers actually are just as smart as you—believe it or not; you cannot cheat this rule because you will get caught by your readers. You might think that you could write about your own thoughtfulness by having one of your characters express it, and you can, but your judges will put the misdemeanor on your record. Never in any way write about your own thoughtfulness (unless you’re writing about writing as I am now, or doing something like putting your scientific work up for peer review), because doing so creates a hypocrite paradox; writing all of your thoughtfulness defines carelessness, so when you do it, the more thoughtful you are, the less thoughtful you are. Remember the iceberg. In a different way, I will repeat myself: Your story is not your brain, it is your brainchild. But right now, I am writing about my own thoughtfulness, yet I am simultaneously buying your forgiveness with my secrets. Writing about writing erases unwritten rules. And it puts new ones on paper.
- I hit the play button on the analysis. Here’s the same example sentence: “She thanked me for the portrait I drew of her, and I almost cried with happiness.” As we already know, the word “and” does not automatically create a problem in time. But what about clarity? The example is just short of indelibly clear; it has a clear connotation, and an almost clear denotation. Its denotation is not invincible because one out of a a million circumstances might disagree with the connotation. (If you don’t know exactly what connotation and denotation mean, look them up in a dictionary—an online one will do; they are vital concepts to writing.) Here’s what I mean: The next sentence could possibly change the meaning of the artist’s tears. “She thanked me for the portrait I drew of her, and I almost cried with happiness. But then I realized that the lottery ticket was one number off and I had won nothing. I looked up at her and asked, ‘What did you say?’” If a semicolon had been between the two statements, it would have prevented all possibility of the tears having a source other than the thank you. If I had added the sentence about the lottery ticket, I would have added work for a proofreader also. But, I nonetheless chose the the compound sentence construction. Why? Before I answer, let’s give sentences a clarity a scale of 1 to 100. A semicolon would have given the example sentence a 100. (Your goal should be to write a 100 sentence almost every time.) But the compound sentence is a 99.9999 or so. It’s almost there, but it isn’t. If these numbers were the only consideration, the 100 would be the choice. But the 100 construct has its own flaw; the two statements, in their current order, are clear enough that their meaning will be self-evident regardless of how they are punctuated—and the semicolon would thus do very little that the words don’t do for themselves. Because readers are smart people, they don’t need you to add an indication to something that is self evident; the semicolon in that particular example might actually have come off as patronizing. But be aware, that scores of 100 on the clarity scale are required for the vast majority of your sentences.
- But before I give the impression that semicolons are magical, I must point out that far more important than your semicolons are the words you put around them; if you put a property stake in the land that only nature owns, it might kill a burrowing animal. Also, semicolons aren’t even necessary to good writing; many great writers use them seldom if at all. But many other great writers use them frequently. I personally believe that understanding them is very helpful—at the very least; one of writing’s primary goals is conciseness, and as the semicolon can do the work of entire phrases, I suggest learning to utilize it. One last thing, if you’ve used a word like “but” a few times recently, a semicolon can help you avoid using it again. And again. And again. To keep your words fresh sounding. I see nothing bad about using the semicolon well. Just my two cents.
- The colon [the thing between these two parentheses (:)] is easier to use than the semicolon. Its main use is to introduce something. “Tonight I have had four drinks: a beer, a shot, a cocktail, and a glass of wine.” Its use in that example is rather useless; the sentence could have functioned just fine with a comma in place of the colon. But, the colon can do a meaningful thing: make something stand out—in a distinctive way. In that last sentence, “make something stand out—in a distinctive way” gets to look like its own sentence despite being a non-capitalized fragment—and it got an introduction (via the colon, of course). More or less, those effects occur in unison only after the colon—and often, not even then. Imagine the colon as the curtain, and the singular thing is the concert pianist behind it; when the reader goes beyond the colon, the curtain is pulled and the pianist appears. “When I saw the wolf, I knew I had only one option: fight.” (Notice that, once more, the word after the colon is not capitalized. Many books will give you different information on whether or not to capitalize after a colon. My advice is to capitalize full sentences that come after the colon, and nothing else. You don’t have to follow that advice; the rules about colons are quite lax.) The word “fight” got separation from all other words. You would want such a sentence if a long fight were about to take place. Or if the character who had come to that realization was a vegetarian and pacifist who had sworn to never fight any creature. You want a reason to add drama to the word “fight,” or else such use of a colon could descend into melodrama. But I’m actually lying, because such a sentence has no abilit to create melodrama by itself; it meets to tone of the decision. But I didn’t lie for no reason; I was speaking as if it were a dramatic introduction for something very ungrammatical. When we see that colon followed by the word “fight,” we know exactly what’s coming: The person is going to attack the wolf. And a fight against a wolf absolutely deserves—nay demands an big introduction.
- Imagine you’re reading book with a male protagonist who is currently casting his fishing line into a river at the end of a paragraph. But at the beginning of the next, he is all of a sudden two minutes into a fight with a wolf. What authorial robbery! Especially if the marketing for that piece of literature used the fight with the wolf as a selling point. Some people read to read man fighting wolf. Yet no one reads to read man fighting wolf but skip over the most relatable part about man fighting wolf. Which is everything that happens before man fighting wolf. Few of us have or ever will fight a wolf; if we’re going to relate to a man who does, we must first see him as a man who does not. And for the example sentence to illustrate true humanity, the character must have already taken some journey—fast or slowly—from disbelief to belief that he must fight a wolf. (Let’s look at a version that is fairer to the reader.) The man is a poor sheep herder, and a wolf has killed his dog, devoured half of his flock, and killed over fifty people in the region. Because this is an 18th century Frenchman who lives in Gévaudan—the place where a mysterious wolf (or simply “the beast”) killed over a hundred people—maybe even two hundred (yes, that really happened). The man had been watching his son frolic along the shore, and now the beast is inching his way to the water. Truly, such a scene would automatically set the stage for the fight—and the semicolon’s introduction would be superfluous. But you don’t know the whole situation yet; earlier in the year, the man lost an arm and a foot to the beast. Not only does he have no chance of winning the fight, the entire conflict of the story is his dealing with the debilitating fear he has for the unearthly creature (yes, it had an unnatural aspect). He has spent each day since the attack locked in his house, disallowing his children to leave the safety of its four small walls. And the only reason he is now out fishing is that the beast has already been killed—or so everyone thinks (that did happen: the beast was indeed killed, but another took its place). With so many reasons for the man to run and hide, the fight now deserves—nay demands the introduction. And I’ll finish the story. The man cries out to his son and sprints on his wooden leg toward his babe who freezes in fear. The man trips, and his one arm crashes onto a big rock sticking out of the water. But he stands up with the rock in his hand, and sprints with what seems like two feet toward the beast—even though the water that spurted into his eyes when he fell is blurring his vision. Finally upon the beast, he raises the rock with his eyes becoming clearer. But now he sees that the wolf is missing a hind foot. And one of its front legs is mangled. And it’s shivering with fear and blood loss. The man realizes that this wolf is not the beast; it is a victim of the beast. And perhaps mortally wounded. The man puts down the rock and touches the wolf. It doesn’t protest; it lies down slowly. The man caresses it and whispers, “Good boy.” Now the wolf’s chest is expanding less with each breath. So the man goes home and gets the medicines he has for his sheep and what remains of his of his own pain medication from after getting maimed. He medicates the wolf. He tourniquets his nub. Splints his mangled leg. And brings water. The wolf drinks and drinks and drinks. Then thunder cracks and the rainstorm begins. The man gets his wheel barrow and brings the wolf into his home, feeding him the only fish that he caught that day. And somehow the wolf survives to become the man’s unendingly loyal companion. Maybe the man took pity on the wolf because it looked like his dog that the beast had killed. . . .
- All of the sentences that come before—and all of the sentences to come after—should affect every sentence you write. And every punctuation mark matters to its sentence. And so, the story of the injured wolf matters to the punctuation choices within it. . . . I’m going to guess that most of you didn’t see the twist coming. Unforeseen twists are usually only one of two things: very good or very bad. They become bad when they mean more to the writer than the characters do. But hopefully, my one-footed man reacted to the twist with humanity—the story thing that the twist must never subtract from. And as in the case of the injured wolf, the twist works best when the audience is in anticipation. Think back to the first time you saw the final fight in Empire Strikes Back (spoiler coming), and I will do the same. . . . We’ve been anticipating Luke’s end fight with Vader for the entire movie—if not, longer. The fight proves no less than perfect. Even the set design. After winning our admiration by losing the fight, Luke is refusing to join the dark side of the Force. No surprise. But he has lost a hand. A bigger punishment than we expected or wanted for him. Luke showed zero wisdom before the fight but all of his heart during it. And we feel sad for him; he’s getting abused, helpless. Still feisty, but outmatched in every way. Luke has overachieved because he put his friends above his own vanity—which earlier caused him to whine and feel useless for being less powerful than his enemy. But this Luke doesn’t whine or doubt himself; he fights to save his friends—unconcerned about his limits. And what does he receive as reward? Pain and mutilation. But we don’t necessarily hate their inflicter; Vader seems to share our pity for Luke. Because young Skywalker clearly won’t switch sides, Vader’s job is to kill him. But instead, he’s literally begging Luke to give in and live through the battle. Luke is wearing his heart for a face, so we have no trouble reading his mind. But we can’t tell what his faceless opponent is thinking. And then—BOOM! We get punched in the mind with fists of words: “Obi-wan never told you what happened to you father, did he? . . . I am your father.” Wait, wait, what? No! That’s a lie! “Search your feelings, Luke. You know it to be true!” What? Can he do that? Can he search his feelings and find the truth? How? . . . Very soon you realize, Because of the Force. . . . Then you see the pain on Luke’s face and hear it his wailing, and Vader’s statement to Luke becomes a statement to the us viewers: “You know it to be true.” Empire’s ending gave us everything we wanted—and oh, so much more. Viewers want most of their predictions to come true; they feel smart that way. But they want to see things that they never even thought of, too; they get impressed that way. If you impress your readers and make them feel smart, they will read you again and again. And because using the thoughtful punctuation gets readers to think for a moment, it can actually help them make good predictions. . . .
- Look at the example sentence again: “When I saw the wolf, I knew I had only one option: fight.” Notice that what comes directly before the colon, the phrase “only one option,” alludes to what comes after it: the word “fight.” What comes after the colon explains something about what came before it, but you want to keep those things as close to each other on the page as possible—for clarity. “This quote is in a book that I read as a little boy: ‘No kindness can bind the ungrateful.’” That is acceptable use of the colon, but not good use. “A book that I read as a little boy has this quote: ‘No kindness can bind the ungrateful.’” That is good use of the colon. In that latter example, the word directly before the colon, “quote,” refers to what comes after the colon. For my own purposes, I would call “quote” the “announcer.” And I would call “No kindness can bind the ungrateful” the “performer.” (Please forgive my special language. I’m not suggesting that you adopt those terms yourself; I just needed something that would help me understand the concept, and those two words were what I came up with.) You don’t always have to keep the “announcer” and the “performer” right next to each other (in fact, I break that “rule” herein this answer—once that can think of, maybe more), but you should try to keep them as close as possible. Generally speaking. And again, the colon is the “curtain.” Silly names. I know.
- There is one use of the colon that I will advise against (until this year, I used it frequently). Most people don’t know of it, and unlike each of he semicolon’s many uses, this particular use of the colon creates confusion in readers who are unfamiliar with it. But here is its worst offense: The construct subordinates the semicolons, and thus has the ability to steal power from every semicolon you use. The construct’s logic is this: Lists come in many forms, and as some can look quite messy, use semicolons after a colon to separate the items a “complex list.” That logic sounds fine, but few people know of it. And the strange features of the construct bewilder an unfamiliar eye. And still, I could forgive its every problem if not for the one: It demeans the semicolon. Not okay. In fact, I won’t even show you what the construct looks like; I have too much respect for punctuation to insult it. Of course, this opinion comes from a human being endowed with mankind’s erroneous judgment—and glad of it. Nonetheless, I will advise you as if I my judgment were correct. . . . Recognize when you have a “list.” Here’s its definition: three or more words, phrases, or clauses (including those that could form compound sentences) that are put together in sequence for the purpose of showing some relationship between them (e.g. dogs, cats, and parrots). Recognize your lists’ items: the aforementioned words, phrases, or clauses within a list [e.g. dogs, cats, and parrots (you could argue that the “and” is not part of the last item, and I wouldn’t argue back—if for no other reason than the insignificance of such a debate)]. Recognize whether or not your list has “complex items”: items that have inner punctuation, are not the same parts of speech, or are different enough in any way to offend the selfevidence of the list (e.g. feed the dog, figure out a way to trick the cat into taking her medicine, make a new decision, I have to do this all by noon—and what am I forgetting about my new, expensive car?). On a personal note, that between those last two parentheses hurts my feelings—and to a degree that discourages me from figuring out why. . . . Read between those parentheses again. You’ll see that I used a dash instead of a comma before for the last item. I did so because the item contained its own comma and would have been even more confusing otherwise. My advice for complex lists? Use discretion with each one. Sometimes you’ll find that treating the complex list as a simple list works perfectly (in fact, my example within those last parentheses works to create a feeling of the list-maker battling the chaos around him, and I would use that is—confusing as it may be—so long as it worked with the tone of the story). Many times, if not most, you’ll find that using periods is what will break the items up in the clearest way. That sentiment has partially lead to my acceptance of the sentence fragment into my own writing. I’ll tell you how to spot a sentence fragment. Looks like this. And I’ll use one to define sentence fragments. Words that don’t make a full sentence acting like they do. I’ll spare you the more accurate, more boring definition of the sentence fragment; you’ve learned enough terms in 18. But if you think that those terms are boring, then I say good—learn to embrace the boring. Imagine this: A man looks at a picture of himself and frowns, saying, “I didn’t know I looked like that from behind.” But then the disappointed photo model hits the gym and likes what he sees in the next heel-and-up picture of him. Sometimes being uncomfortable can help you make a good choice. And when you travel to a boring place, you might get an exciting idea. Also, a boring trip can help you better appreciate the entertainment in your own hometown. When it comes to getting better at writing, boring things can help you.
- The dash is a dashing one-size-fits-all tuxedo; it can do what all of the punctuation marks I’ve already talked about can—even what the period does . . . well, kind of. My suggestion for learning the dash is this: Learn how to use the period, comma, semicolon, and colon first. Learning to use the comma is learning to use the dash—just as learning to use the colon is learning to use the dash—etc. Notice that that last sentence has exactly two dashes; early in my dash education, I read to use the dash no more than twice per sentence. I don’t know why I took that advice so strictly, but it is one of the few “rules” that I almost never break to this day. Most likely, I find a third dash between periods as an aesthetic problem. After all, the dash is quite long. Feel free to use as many dashes as you want in your own sentences; I tell you the prescription I follow only to make you aware of its main purpose: It affects the eye.
- When should you use the dash twice in a sentence? Here’s when I do: when I have a sentence that must contain many commas—and probably a parenthetical phrase. What is a parenthetical phrase? One that could be taken out without changing the sentence’s meaning. Such as the italicized words in this sentence: I have to walk my dog, who has lots of hair, two miles through the rainstorm now. (That sentence has an example of a useful parenthetical phrase; in relation to the surrounding sentence, it appeals to the sense of smell. Or rather, it does the opposite, which is usually the same thing somehow. Most readers will be smelling lots of wet dog hair when they read the sentence, and as long as you haven’t grossed them out several times recently, they will actually appreciate the unpleasant smell. Partly because people put up with dog smell out of love for their companions. Partly because readers want conflict, and a bad smell is its own conflict. It could even make real conflict. I’ll show you how in number 22.
- A man takes his dog out on walks because the vet said that his faithful companion needs to lose weight. But he also promised his wife that he would be back in time for the dinner she’s been slaving over. While he’s out trying to get his best buddy down to a healthy weight, an unexpected rainstorm starts—a big one. He can’t ask his wife for a ride because she’s busy cooking, and despite several attempts to find a ride home, one will come pick him up—not even Uber. Now imagine this: Earlier, we found out that this man’s worst-hated smell is wet dog; also, the reason his dog is overweight is because of his own laziness, plus he hates rainstorms. So the man has to pick his dog up and walk him two miles home—the whole time breathing in wetter and wetter dog. And when he finally sits down to eat dinner with his wife—on time—she complains that he smells. Poor guy. Or so it would seem. What I haven’t told you is that, as a surprise treat for him, his wife made apple pie—which gives off his favorite scent in the world. After breathing in the aroma, he wears a soft smile and tells his wife, “Sorry, I can see how hard you’ve worked on this meal; the least I can do is change my clothes for you.” Clearly, the good smell means more because of the bad smell. Just remember to have your readers smell more apple pies than rainstorm dogs.)
- Sometimes a parenthetical will have a list within it as the one in this sentence does: My sons—who are fourteen, fifteen, eighteen, and twenty-two—never act their ages. The bookending dashes make the parenthetical phrase less confusing. (“Bookending dashes” is my own term. Sorry again for the special language.) Use bookending dashes.
- But when should you use only one dash? Just as the bookending dashes, the single dash can give the comma a needed break. “Saturday mornings, I drive to my father’s, drive him to the store, drive him to the bank, drive him home, drive back to my house—then soon I drive to some place unforeseen. Sundays, I do the same for my mother—except I drive her to Church instead of the bank. Yes, on the weekends, I just drive, and drive, and drive—because I can’t stand to be in my empty house hoping that my wife comes home.” In the long example, the dashes worked as a break not only from the comma, but from an established pattern. Even in the second sentence, the phrase “I do the same for my mother” reminds the reader of all the driving this person did with the father—so, in a way, it reenacts all of the commas from the previous sentence. If you see three commas in one statement, consider a dash to replace one (or a simple deletion of one or more commas). Truly, one statement may very well require three or four commas and no dashes. But regardless of outcome, the more commas you’re using, the more dashes you should consider. Always. Even if you have only two commas, you should for a moment consider a replacement dash. But don’t let thoughtfulness cross the border of perfectionism; a small thing such as considering a replacement dash in a two comma statement requires fast action—lest it slow you down.
- “Over the last seven years, I have become ten years younger—a lifetime wiser.” That sentence could have a comma in place of the dash, but I don’t think it should; “a lifetime wiser” is arguably a sentence fragment, arguably not—but whichever, it weighs a lot. And it might throw “ten years younger” off the seesaw with only a comma between them. The dash draws the eye more so than the comma, and so it provides some distinction between what came before it and what will come after it. Sometimes a distinction gives each side-by-side idea more meaning; sometimes connecting them does. “If I for a moment—nay a lifetime within a moment—could feel her lips upon mine, would the rest of my moments long to be that one?” In that example, the bookending dashes drew attention to a pivotal phrase. The dash works well when the eye calls for it—or when the mind doesn’t expect it—or when you just know you need to use it. As Stephen Wilbers has said, “Use the dash for dashing effect.”
- Ellipses [the things in these parentheses ( . . . )] have several uses. (You can call them an “ellipsis,” also. Technically, “ellipses” is the plural of “ellipsis,” but they more or less mean the same thing. I refer to them in their plural.) But before I tell you what their uses are, I should talk about what they look like; they are always three periods, but they can come with or without spaces between their periods. And when they do come with spaces, the first period may not have a space to its left. Look at these sentences: “I don’t know. . . I just. . . don’t know.” Visually, the speech could look two other ways without meaning anything different. It could look like this: “I don’t know… I just… don’t know.” Or finally, it could look like this: “I don’t know . . . I just . . . don’t know.” I prefer that last one; you may prefer another.
- Firstly, ellipses can signify an omission of words. (I almost used a different example than the one you’re about to read; the speaker pauses often in the speech. As you may know, pauses in speech are denoted by ellipses—just as omissions are. But here in the example, I’m using ellipses to indicate omissions only. For clarity’s sake, I naturally considered looking for another example. But then I realized that this is the perfect example to show how to use ellipses. You’ll see why in number 28. Just know that here in 27, all of the ellipses in the example indicate omissions—and none of them indicate pauses.) “Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was a drinker . . . And one night, he goes of crazier than usual. . . . he takes the knife . . . He looks at me and says, ‘Why so serious?’ . . . He comes at me . . . ‘Let’s put a smile on that face!’” Every time you see the ellipses in that example, words from the Joker’s actual monologue are being skipped. Look at the second ellipses. It appears to have a fourth period. Why? Because it begins at the end of a sentence that ends in a period. When you start an ellipses at the end of a full sentence, the three ellipses don’t ingest the sentence’s ending punctuation. Now look at the second ellipses and what comes after it: a non-capitalized word. Yes, ellipses neither ingest nor produce an ending punctuation on their own; the word “he” is not capitalized after the second ellipses because it isn’t the first word in a sentence. I cut the first word out of the actual speech. Now now look at ‘Why so serious?’ That question has many punctuational things to look at. A) As before, the ellipses came after the ending punctuation of a full sentence. That sentence already has at its end two punctuation marks—a question mark and an apostrophe—and the ellipses adds a third. Such a case illustrates why I prefer my ellipses to have bookending spaces; the space keeps the text the text from looking crowded with punctuation. The same logic holds even more truth for a ellipses after a period (I’ll spare you the visual). B) The sentence’s ending punctuation is actually an apostrophe. Why? Because it is what I call a “second-level quote”; it is a quote within a larger speech that already has quotation marks around it. In this instance, I am quoting the Joker, and the Joker is quoting his father (though he’s probably making the story up, I have to respect the quote because I am not an omniscient narrator of The Dark Knight; by the way, almost all omniscient narrators would respect the quote, anyway). Whenever you have a quote within a quote, you use an apostrophe to begin and end the inner quote. C) The quote is italicized. Why? Because the Joker imitates his father while quoting him. Emphatically. Whenever you need to emphasize a certain word or phrase—or whenever you want to—consider italicizing it. One last thing, after chopping up the Joker’s monologue, I ended it with an end-apostrophe followed by a end-quote. When your quote ends with a second-level quote (please forgive my special language, again), an end-apostrophe followed by a end-quote must seal it up at the far right.
- Secondly, the ellipses can work to show pauses in speech. “Wanna know how I got these scars? . . . My father was . . . a drinker . . . and a fiend. . . . And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself—he doesn’t like that. . . . Not . . . one . . . bit!” You might have noticed I changed plenty from my first example of this monologue. I put an ellipses after the first sentence, which is a question. Why didn’t I do so in the previous example of the speech? Because I didn’t have to (neither would you have had to). In the first example, the speech constantly skips ahead—using ellipses as the indication. When you’re using ellipses for very frequent omissions in a speech, you don’t want to use it for pauses, also; your readers wouldn’t know the omissions from the pauses, and after all, clarity is the first element in good writing. Remember, when you’re very frequently using ellipses of omission, no one in the know is going to point at your lack of ellipses for one of Joker’s pauses and say, “Look! Mistake! Right there! Everyone, come and look! Mistake! This writer is so dumb!” Again, don’t stress out about your punctuation. Just make sure that you’re using logic to guide you. And if your logic fails, your editor won’t—ninety-nine percent of the time. On the very rare occasions where she doesn’t catch of your mistakes, don’t worry because virtually no one else will catch it, either—so long as you’re using a good editor. Back to the ellipses after the fist sentence, you show a pause from one sentence to the next exactly as I did—after the question mark or period or whatever kind of ending punctuation (in this case, it was the question mark). Just as you do with ellipses of omission. As you probably noticed, the many ellipses add drama to the speech. They somehow make the Joker scarier. Probably because you’ve seen the movie and can hear his voice; the ellipses can probably help you mimic his cadence—making the words seem more real. But hopefully, the ellipses in the earlier example of the speech did the same thing. In the first example, I the chose omissions for dramatic effect—on top of educational. And you should know that, because you should use ellipses for dramatic effect, too; you should skip over anything that is boring—at every opportunity.
- Now I’m going to tell you a bad idea that I had while writing number 28. At the end herein 29, you’ll see why I’m telling you. The idea was this: Use one visual version of the ellipses to signify an omission, and use another to signify a pause. Doing so would solve the problem of readers’ not being able to tell the difference between ellipses of omissions and pauses. As I showed you, ellipses come in three different visual forms. Why can’t we utilize the three forms to show signify the many different things that ellipses can do? I know exactly why: because no one could agree on which should do which; people already don’t agree on what the ellipses should look like—give them something more to argue about, and they’ll take it, gladly. The idea is bad. Very bad. None of you should adopt it. But having a bad idea is infinitely better than having no idea at all; it shows thoughtfulness about your writing. You should wear your bad ideas as badges of honor. I for one am very proud of my very bad idea. Remember, not all of your ideas can be bad. Even if you’ve had twenty bad ones, tried them out, showed them to people, looked at their puzzled faced, and finally realized that your idea was really bad, your twenty-first idea might be pure gold. All it takes is one good idea to become a better writer. Often, you’ll realize that your good idea is already in use and perhaps something you’ve even read about. But to me, it still counts as an idea; when it comes to writing, understanding something old is usually better than doing something new—strangely.
- The ellipses can abuse and mislead. I’ll give you an extreme example. “I watched my brother fall off the cliff to his death. But then I woke up and remembered that he’s the best rock-climber I’ve very seen—and he never falls. And I laughed.” That quote could be hacked up into this: “I watched my brother fall off the cliff to his death. . . . And I laughed.” The partial quote makes the speaker sounds like Scar talking about Mufasa; it abuses the original writer (or speaker) and misleads the current readers. Of course, such blatant dishonesty could have repercussions. Then again, it might not. Ellipses are almost never used so ruthlessly, but the example gives you a taste from the cup of coffee with twelve teaspoons of salt instead of sugar. Now imagine only half a teaspoon of salt and perhaps a dash of sour milk. Of course, I’m not suggesting you would serve ill prepared coffee on purpose, but you might on accident; salt looks a wee bit like sugar, and unsmelled milk might be sour. When you’re cutting out someone else’s words, make sure you’re not cutting out their voice and message. And when you’re reading, watch out for “quotes” that seem particularly evil if they have a bunch of ellipses in them; someone might be trying to trick you.
- (Advisory: Number 31 contains concepts that you should think about very infrequently.) I do a bit of speculating herein 31. And I do so as a kindly ruse. Please allow me to explain. You should not care about 31—at all. Why read it if it’s not worth caring about? Because it can help you, but only if you don’t care about it. I’ve thrown together a list of ellipses’ fancier uses (though the word “novelty” might work better than “fancier”). And, some uses on the list might not be real; as I said, I do a bit of speculating. Only a bit, though. The great majority of the things on the list are true. Not because I say so; because someone else does. Ellipses can illustrate abnormalities in speech or noise. They can indicate an audible echo—usually of a voice. They can indicate that a fully engrossing activity (often thought) will continue. An awkward silence. An unfinished speech that trails off into silence—often due to the speaker’s getting lost in thought. A feeling of boredom. The passage of time. The feeling of time moving slowly. Longing. Depression. Indeciciveness. And strangely, they can make the sudden change to come more surprising. Sometimes the ellipses need to go at the beginning of a sentence for a certain effect, but usually they will go in the middle or at the end of one. Almost no one is a master at using ellipses in all of these ways. In fact, I don’t know of a way to learn these other than through osmosis (by noticing them in books and gradually understanding them). Please forgive my not divulging which of these uses might not be real. I withhold that information for your own sake; if I told you which might be false, you might care more about the ones that are certainly true—and you shouldn’t. See, I told you I had a ruse.
- Quotation marks signify speech (whether fictional or an examination of a real person’s words) or an excerpt from another written work. For dialogue in fiction, quotes work like this: John said, “Hi, mom.” Notice the comma before the first quotation mark. Notice the period inside the end-quote (in American English, the ending punctuation goes inside the quotation mark almost always). Let’s look at a more complex example of a speech in fiction: John said, “I was walking to the store when,” he scratched his eye, “I saw my ex girlfriend.” Surely, that was not the best way to write the speech, but before we find out why, let’s look at its correct punctuation and what it means. Such a sentence indicates that John did not actually pause his speech; he instead scratched his eye exactly after saying “when” while continuing to talk. Notice the comma before the first end-quote; he hasn’t finished speaking, so the ending punctuation doesn’t go before the first end-quote. Notice how he is not capitalized; a new sentence has not begun. Though he scratched his eye could be its own sentence, it is subordinate to the larger sentence’s main objective, which is delivering the speech. Notice that commas go before both sets of quotation marks. Notice that the period again goes inside the quotation mark. Now we can look at the less technical and more stylistic considerations of the dialogue. Here’s a better way to write the sentence and its dialogue: “I was walking to the store when I saw my ex girlfriend,” said John, scratching his eye. Why is the revision better? For several reasons, but perhaps the most apparent is that it has a cleaner look on the page. Sometimes you should interrupt the speaker, but only when doing so creates a desired change. In the unrevised version, the interruption accomplishes nothing (unless maybe the scene or language within it has some unusual circumstances; perhaps John has a tick, and the eye-scratching has medical implications). Actually, the harms more than the visual aesthetic of the page. Because the act of eye-scratching does not need to interrupt the speech, it becomes conspicuous. And because its peculiar place on the page gives it no advantage over a more normal one, it becomes meaningless. When you have something that is both conspicuous and meaningless, you have an enormous problem. You can think of such an unnecessary problem as stylistic melodrama.
- I said that the problem is conspicuous. And that is true. But it is only conspicuous to stylistic observation; most readers would not consciously remember it—and yet, they probably would feel the problem. And you could actually turn that feeling to your advantage. (Advisory: I do not recommend the habit of using stylistic mistakes—no matter what kind of advantage you can make of them; one of a writer’s first responsibilities is to develop good stylistic habits.) But check this out: You could fake the stylistic melodrama. Say that you went with the unrevised version that had the conspicuous and meaningless eye-scratching. (You would go with that only with the knowledge that it was a bad choice.) Later, you could have the man find out that he had pink eye. The reader might even recall the weird sentence where John scratched his eye, and you’ve made something good out of something bad.
- With few exceptions, the end-quote goes to the right of the other punctuation. So prevalent is this rule that it causes weaknesses in American punctuation (similar to how the ellipses’ had problems handling omissions as well as the Joker’s pausing cadence). Here it is: “Where will you go?” she said. Notice that the word after question mark is not capitalized. It usually would be. But because of the end-quote, it isn’t. Yet, the word-ordering could be changed, and then the question mark could also end of the sentence. Here’s how it would look: She said, “Where will you go?” With the new ordering, the sentence has a comma (before the first quotation mark and after “said) but no period; with the original ordering, the sentence had a period but no comma. And with the new ordering, the next word after the question mark will be capitalized. End-quotes can be somewhat tricky. Now look at this sentence: “You’re crazy!” he said. The same logic holds true of the “Where will you go?” sentence.
- Look at the last sentence of number 34; you’ll see that there is no comma before the first quotation mark. The reason is that despite it previously signifying speech, it is now being referenced as an excerpt; the quote is not being spoken in this case. The fact that it had quotation marks around it in its initial form, too, is purely incidental; we would have used quotation marks around it the second time no matter what. As a mnemonic side-note, the lack of two sets of quotation marks in its excerpt form is actually an abridgment; excerpts require quotes, and because the excerpt has quotes in its original form, one of them gets disregarded. If one didn’t, the excerpt would have looked like this: ““Where will you go?”” Yes, that does look obnoxious, which is why English writing doesn’t have such a construct.
- Some rules can’t be broken, such as “Never put periods in the middle of words like th.is” (even though I just did break it). And lots of those rules have intuitive reasoning. And intuitive reasoning can give you insight. And so, if you can find it in yourself to be interested in what you can’t do, you’ll have an easier time remembering what you can. And you can often apply that logic to help you understand other rules. Punctuation marks were not created by something divine being whose logic exceeds that of mortals; they’re just little symbols that someone came up with for certain reasons. And as with all symbols, people disagree about what they mean.
- Look at this sentence: The same logic holds true of the “Where will you go?” sentence. (Sound familiar? It was the last thing said in number 34.) Notice that “Where will you go?” is capitalized but does not have a comma before the first quotation mark. Why not? Because it is a direct quote from an earlier speaking part that was capitalized, but in this case, no one is speaking it. And here’s an important new question: Do I have the choice to not capitalize the first word in the quote? Yes, I do. I must admit that I’ve gotten a lot of mixed answers about this question, but from everything I gather, I’m quite sure that the matter is one of choice. And here’s why: Sometimes, things get quoted several times, and a pesky capitalized word out of an excerpt might look confusing. For instance, if the excerpt is “Big rains make big trouble,” you might want to reference “Big rains” more than once, and the quotation marks could signify the idea as not something you came up with (often, someone else’s words supporting your argument really helps). But then you could have a sentence like this: Those “Big rains” don’t know how to stop; “Big rains” go away! The two capitalized words look weird side-by-side (because the second one isn’t a proper noun). And being directly after the semicolon, the capitalized “Big” looks even weirder there. But changing “Big rains” to “big rains” would fix the entire problem. In fact, it’s such a good solution that it is allowed. But despite the openness of the construct, you should avoid frequent changes in capitalization.
- End-quotes cannot have colons or semicolons directly before them; they shouldn’t have dashes before them, but you might get away with putting dashes there, so long as you do so very infrequently (another rule that I’ve found mixed information about).
- Sometimes a single speech continues into a new paragraph without interruption (from non-speech sentences). When this happens, you do not use an end-quote at the end of the first paragraph, but you do put a beginning quote at the beginning of the second paragraph. Regardless of how many paragraphs the speech goes, you will have but one end quote. For instance, if you have a four paragraph quote, you will have four beginning quote marks and only one end-quote. The first and last paragraphs may have other sentences besides those in the speech. (I can’t give you an example because it would look strange within this numbered list. But the concept is quite simple. And by the way, such speeches are often monologues.)
- (Take number 40 as a grain of sand; it is unique in this list in that it is for references purposes only—that is, you refer to this when you need it [as you would with a dreaded style giide]. Don’t even try to understand 40. Just give it a quick once through and forget about it until the day you need it—which might actually never come.) The above rule becomes confusing when the speaker who goes on for multiple paragraphs is simultaneously quoting two or more other speakers. Such an occurrence is extraordinarily rare, but it could happen. In fact, it’s so rare that I haven’t found any trustable information on it. But the majority of samples I’ve seen have a new paragraph start whenever the speaker quotes a new speaker (and by “new speaker,” I mean that the first time that the speaker quotes another speaker is exceptional, but of course the speaker might quote the first speaker at the beginning of a paragraph incidentally). The beginning of each paragraph would have a quotation mark followed by an apostrophe. Each paragraph that would end with a speaker quoting another speaker (and by “end,” I mean the speaker will not be quoting the second speaker at the beginning of the next paragraph) would end in only an apostrophe. But if something even more unusual is happening; the speaker could be quoting a speaker whose speech goes for longer than one paragraph—regardless of whether or not the actual speaker is quoting a second speaker. In that case, the paragraph would end with no quote or apostrophe, and the next paragraph would start with a beginning quote and apostrophe.
- Brackets work as “second-level parentheses.” Similar to how apostrophes work within quotation marks to indicate a speaker quoting someone else, brackets replace parentheses when the an off-topic idea contains another off topic idea. Here’s an example: I had a dog (who died at sixteen because I didn’t have the decency to put him to sleep at fifteen when he got the cancer [it was lymphoma and I forced him go through the hellish treatment]) who had the same face as my new neighbor’s black lab—except mine was yellow (the opposite of his personality). As I have in all of the examples in this answer, I tried to make the example brackets meaningful. But unlike many of the other examples, I also tried to make this one different from the norm. You usually wouldn’t use brackets and parentheses to tell story in such a manner, but that’s why you should do it once in a while. You want to try new things with your writing because new things always work—on at least one level: acquiring experience. Counterintuitively, the opposite is true in the same place and time. You should dwell on many of the things you write until they whisper to you, “You can’t really make me better.” People are correct when they say, “A writer must go deep.” But they are remiss when they don’t add, “A writer must go wide.” Strangely, both ideas mean this: “A writer must go small.”
- Deep is small because going deep means that you go from the beginning to the end—never getting lazy along the way. And you cannot go the end of two things at once. Imagine simultaneously watching two movies you’ve never seen. Flipping your eyes back and fourth, you realize that both movies have outstanding beginnings. But not long after, the loud part of one ruins the quiet part of the other. And the each movie’s dialogue talks over the other, often causing you to misunderstand the characters. However, you’re still enjoying the experience. . . . Both movies have great endings. You think back and realize that you could relay most of the plot of the movie on the left TV, but not that of the one on the right TV. Yet you can recall more visual details about the movie on the right. You want to watch the movie on the left again as soon as possible; seemingly, it would only get better with your full attention. But you don’t know if you want to watch the movie on the right ever again; it had a surprise ending that would’ve blown you away if not for the movie on the left. What you have done is the opposite of go deep. In order to go deep, your focus must be small.
- Wide is small because big things have overlap; the furthest thing from your experience will be something small, or it will be an aspect of something larger. I have a suggestion. Have a main writing project and define its different aspects. Then do smaller projects that are the opposite of those aspects in your main project; the small projects will give you great insight. They might take only a few minutes of time-effort—or a lot more. But they will save you revision-time in your main project, which will end up much better for what you’ve learned from the small ones.
- Brackets have other uses—or rather, academic writing has other uses for them. I’ll save those uses for your proofreader to worry about. My advice for specific style guide’s recommendations is this: Don’t ever worry about them unless you’re an academic. I’m not saying don’t learn or use them if you’re in college; I’m saying learn and use them, but hire someone to actually worry about them for you. Yes, you college kids have little money, but even on college kid money, you can afford to outsource lots of such work through websites like Upwork. You’ll figure out style guide rules as you continue to write college papers; your writing concerns should ever aim at what and how you write. Things such as citing according to a style guide are simply matters of diligence—not talent. Perhaps it does take a small amount of talent to follow instructions on the first try, but as written instructions allow for infinite repetitions, anyone who takes the time will meet a style guide’s demands eventually. A student fears citing and similar academic writing requirements not because of their complexity, but because of the stress they add to writing’s other more demanding demands. Citing when you don’t know how to cite is the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” and writing the paper is the camel’s heavy load. And because such things come at the end of writing a paper, they may very well be what the writer remembers most. My suggestion to avoid this problem is “don’t procrastinate on writing.” Writing is fun. Cramming can be fun, but not for a particularly big work load, which writing is. If you’re going to cram on something when you’re writing a paper, cram on the use of the style guide rules. If you use that process, the cramming will seem like a vacation the real work.
- As every style guide has different recommendations and rules, fondness for one means rejecting the others. Some academic writers even get on teams against certain rules, inspiring the formation of other teams to defend. As you can imagine, their battles are the opposite of thrilling and meaningful. One such battle rages over something called the “serial comma.” You may have heard of it—or one of its other many names such as the “Chicago comma.” Some style guides recommend against it, and certain writers follow that advice passionately. But the opposite advice shows up in more American style guides, and so those comma users in the minority get their feelings hurt most of the times that they read a stranger’s writing (unless they go as far as to actually vet the comma usage of their reading material [notice that I split the infinitive “to vet”—that is, I put the word “actually” between them; despite what you might have learned in school, you can “split an infinitive”—but generally speaking, I suggest doing it only you’re exclaiming or showing disbelief]). I won’t pretend to know much about serial comma droppers’ culture, but I’ve heard that they show up at meetings of the American Heritage Usage Panel (a bunch of who are probably correct in thinking that they are really smart with English words) and get emotional over their cause. Such behavior does not sound worthy of imitation. Writing is not the wrapping; it is the gift inside. (I’m not demeaning anyone who gets emotional about writing; I actually admire the passion of the aforementioned serial comma droppers. I would simply suggest they redirect it.)
- Something about writing can get lost in learning about it (though a great deal more is found). At some point, almost all writers get mentally stabbed by criticism (even though it comes with varying degrees of correctness). Most of us write with the hope that people will read our work and give us praise, and when we receive the opposite, our disappointment can reach any height. But most people want to be admired, so they keep writing—battling their newfound fear of trauma. In another Quora answer, I argue that your readers deserve your greatest effort. They do. But they do not deserve the surrender of your individuality—and they do not have the right to judge your intelligence (though readers do have the right to judge the intentions of an author who makes them clear). Somehow, writing is both a fully public and fully private ordeal, and you must never forget about its being the latter (other people will inevitably remind you of the former); one of the greatest things that writing can do is increase your own happiness, and you should not let anyone steal its ability to do that for you. Learn to love the act of writing—not the glory of it; glory slowly tracks love.
- I refuse to learn a style guide; if I learned one, I might use it when I’m supposed to use another. As you may see, I have many principles when it comes to punctuation. Though principles are made to guide, they are made to be broken, also. I aim to let the circumstances dictate my punctuation—not rules. Because punctuation matters. Every time. A punctuation mark may actually inspire something bigger when you look at it afresh. I once looked at a dash in an excerpt from my own writing, and it reminded me of a dash in an excerpt from someone else’s. I didn’t know why one dash could remind me of a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” But when I looked at both excerpts, I realized that I had accidentally written my excerpt in poetic meter—the same one used in “The Raven.” That realization inspired me to write one of the best poems I ever have. It also changed the way I write—forever. Just one dash did all that.
- Punctuation is the perfect topic for the dismissive writing critic. Never forget that.