I’ve noticed that a lot of people are having a hard time figuring out where to put some punctuation marks in their prose and dialogue, such as commas, ellipses and semicolons. Here’s a quick reference guide for those tricky punctuation marks us writers have to deal with.
There are only three types of commas: list, interrupter and intro
List- A list comma is used to, well, list any sentence elements. Usually, in a list, the final entry has an “and” in addition to or instead of a comma.
Example- We need milk, bread, and cheese at the store.
Interrupter- Interrupter commas add in any extra information in a sentence, such as proper names. Some people think that brackets or parentheses are what you use to separate extra information, but that is incorrect, although you may occasionally make the stylistic choice to use parentheses. Generally, however, you use commas instead.
Example- Her brother, Zach, was waiting for her.
Intro- Intro commas introduce something at the beginning of a sentence or break something off at the end.
Example for beginning- Because she got there early, Samantha had to wait.
Example for end- Samantha enjoyed herself at the party, even though her ex was there.
In school, we're often taught to put a comma anywhere we think a pause is needed. Be warned, though: this is not an actual comma rule. You may choose to use this suggestion to break up super-long sentences, to make them more readable. But in general, you should use commas as explained above, not anywhere you think a pause is needed.
Semicolons are probably one of the strangest punctuation marks you’ll come across. What does that little ; do, anyways?
Semicolons are actually a really nice punctuation mark to use. They act like a period, meaning you put them in the same place, but they tie two sentences together. These two sentences should be related in some way; for example, one may explain the other.
Example- It was a long walk to the ranch; we were tired when we got there.
See the relationship here? Because it was a long walk to the ranch, we were tired when we got there. Since these two ideas are closely related, we can use a semicolon rather than a period to separate them.
Colons are used to introduce something, such as a list or an explanation.
Example for list- Everything she hated was there: fear, hatred, and hopelessness.
Example for explanation- I did one thing wrong, however: I underestimated him.
Dashes have a rather universal role, taking the place of both commas and colons. Why use a dash instead of another punctuation mark? Emphasis! Dashes can emphasize things that ought to get extra attention from the reader, introduce choppy or panicked ideas, show sudden breaks in dialogue, or show a character being cut off.
Example for introduction: I did one thing wrong, however—I underestimated him
Example for surrounding things: I couldn’t believe it when Jenny—my best friend since kindergarten—betrayed me.
Example for choppy or panicked ideas: Suddenly there was a sound—cannon fire!
Example for dialogue: “And that’s what happened during the Civil War—I’m not doing your homework for you, am I?”
Example for a character being cut off:
“All I did was—”
Apostrophes are some of the punctuation marks that are the easiest to make consistent mistakes on. The only time you use them is when putting two words together or when making something possessive.
Example for two words together: Don’t is “do not” and “it’s” is “it is”
Warning! When you use an apostrophe this way, double-check that you are actually merging two words by splitting things apart. If you’ve used “it’s” and your sentence makes no sense with “it is” then you’ve used an apostrophe incorrectly.
Example for making something possessive: The house’s lawn is green.
Note- If you end up with a double “s” sound at the end of a word after adding an apostrophe s (such as in James’s or houses’s), you drop the s after the apostrophe (like so- James’ or houses’).
Only use them in and around dialogue. It doesn’t look good if you put quotes around a word in a description of something. Use italics to show sarcasm in your descriptions instead. Unless, of course, your character is talking with air quotes. Never use quotation marks for emphasis.
If you are using quotes within dialogue, use single quotes. This applies when your character is quoting another character. If the quoted word is at the end of a sentence, you may want to use the end punctuation to show the space between the single and double quote.
Example: “What do you mean, ‘bouncy’?”
An extra issue some authors run into is mind-speak, e.g. when two characters communicate telepathically. Technically, it counts as dialogue. A suggestion is leaving your MC’s mind-speak without quotes, and putting single quotes around any other voices your character might have in their heads.
I don’t know if this is a good idea or not.
Here, “trust me” is said by an outside voice, so it gets put between quotes. It’s up to you if you use single or double quotes around mind-speak, but since double quotes are used for spoken dialogue, I find using single quotes around mind-speak eases confusion.
It sounds easy, right? Only capitalize the first word of a sentence and proper nouns. But what’s a proper noun?
A proper noun is when you are referring to something specific. Like company names, titles, days of the week, the months, and people who are referred to by their title alone (such as Mother).
Mother and other titles (such as doctor, royal titles, etc) can be tricky. Here are some examples:
When to capitalize:
Mother is coming today.
I’m going to see Dr. White.
The Emperor has arrived.
When not to capitalize:
My mother is coming today.
I’m going to see the doctor.
I find emperors are tyrants.
When a title such as these refers to a specific person, place, or thing - in other words, when it's being used as someone's title or name - you capitalize. When the title signifies someone generic (such as "emperors" or "the doctor"), or when it follows a possessive pronoun (like "my mother"), you do not capitalize.
Ellipses are used to show pauses in dialogue or to show a character trailing off.
Example of pauses: “I don’t know what to think… Things are just up in the air right now.”
Note- You can also use tags to show pauses. But if your character is pausing a lot in one sentence, use ellipses. It makes things easier to read.
Example for trailing off: “M’name’s Pearl, I think…”
I hope you enjoyed this guide. Punctuation can be weird, but doing it right is often the difference between a good work and a great one.