An erratic guide to consistent writing: Super Fun Punctuation Special!

I am currently in the middle of preparing for this year’s Pitch Wars, so my time for reading and playing has been severely curtailed. Have no fear, though, because we still know how to have a good time here! This week, we bring you a few tips to help you brush up on your punctuation.

Dashes

Dashes (specifically em dashes) are a popular form of punctuation. They are often used by people who know they need a piece of punctuation somewhere, but are not entirely sure which one, and so dashes become replacements for colons, semicolons, commas, parentheses, ellipses, interrobangs, sarcastiquotes, and the rest. Other websites call this ‘versatility’, but here at Writing Worlds, we call it by its proper name: weakness.

Semicolons are tricky to use well, but everyone should know how to use commas, colons, and parentheses. Using the em dash as a catch-all form of punctuation lessens the impact of the devices implied by its use. That is, the reader cannot tell what sort of pause or emphasis an em dash implies if all pauses and emphases are covered by em dashes.

Reserve em dashes for situations in which other forms of punctuation have already been used. They should be a last resort only, save perhaps in the case of a parenthetical phrase which is within, or near, another parenthetical phrase. Your writing will be much clearer for avoiding them.

Verdict: Three I am Impact! out of seven. (Dash! Dash! Dash!)

Full stops and speech marks

In the United States, there is a general consensus about whether the full stop goes inside speech marks or outside (It goes inside). In the UK, there is general confusion, and no entirely logical solution. When I was at school, I was taught that the full stops go outside the speech marks with the exception of passages of speech without non-speech qualifiers (He said, she replied etc.). All other punctuation marks go inside the speech marks. However, whenever I have tried to apply this, it has made beta-readers CONFUSED AND ANGRY, so I have largely abandoned the rule of the exception.

That said, there is still not much consensus amongst UK style guides and grammatical primers, with the general result that almost anything goes. Unless working in accordance with a particular style guide, I suggest you choose whichever norm you prefer and stick to it.

Verdict: Jury’s out.

Thoughts

Much like the proper placement of full stops, how thoughts are punctuated is not routinely standardized. It is popular to render thoughts and internal monologues in italics, but it is also acceptable to use speech marks with appropriate tags (he thought, she surmised etc.). As with full stops, unless you are working within the constraints of a specific style guide, choose a norm and stick to it.

On the surface, this may seem confusing, because speech marks are already used to, get this, mark speech, but it would actually be more unusual to have a form of punctuation with only one use than to expand what is, effectively, a tool of attribution in text. After all, if italics can also be used for emphasis and foreign words – and em dashes can be used for almost anything – it would be baselessly pedantic to insist that speech marks can only be used for words spoken aloud.

Verdict: I think I’ve said enough.

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