For many beginning writers – and some veterans as well – punctuation can get confusing. The rules of punctuation sometimes seem arcane, abstract, even random. But if we see punctuation as a form of traffic control – commands to stop, pause, look ahead, etc. – it’s easy to master these necessary rules of grammar. In a previous excerpt, we explained how to use periods, commas, colons, and semicolons.
Hyphenate words to combine ideas. People regularly coin new words by combining several words. Glued together with hyphens, these expressions often evolve into single words. The word for the America’s national pastime began as base ball, evolved to base-ball, and finally took the modern form of baseball. The latest example: electronic mail transmogrified into e-mail and then into email.
Hyphens offer a great way to show how things relate to each other. Consider the following sentence: “East-Coast liberals like Hillary Clinton differ from West-Coast liberals like Jerry Brown.” We could say, “liberals from the West Coast,” but that’s not as pithy.
Of course, connecting too many things with hyphenation can get silly. Thus: “The first-term-African-American senator from south-side Chicago made his first-ever run for the White House in 2008.”
Use em-dashes-like this-to make asides. If you want to set off whole phrases or lists, turn to an elongated hyphen known as the em-dash. Look at this sentence:
The Chicago Cubs’ inability to win a World Series for 100 years-a period that saw nineteen different presidents-has caused angst among fans.
The em-dash helps the author make an aside. The em-dash tells the reader to pause, as if to say, “Hey, check this out.”
Critics say the em-dash cheapens writing by encouraging a loose, informal style. To be sure, overusing any tool can be annoying. When we use the em-dash too much-like here-it distracts-and annoys-the reader. But in moderation-again, not like this-the em-dash offers a useful-and even fun-way to emphasize a point.
Use ellipses to show thought trailing off… Every time I see an ellipsis, a set of three dots, I hear the sound of the harp music. Ellipses (plural of ellipsis) suggest thought trailing off, pondering, open-ended ideas. Ellipses allow us to drift for a moment…
Case in point: “Dorothy considered her challenge: ‘If only I could get to see the Wizard of Oz… “‘ We see the girl with braided hair, a wicker basket, and a dog named Toto looking off into space, in her own world, lost in thought.
Ellipses also perform more technical task: marking gaps in quoted passages. Quotations often leave out whole sections. People rarely speak in compact packages, so writers need to stitch together comments made at different moments. To indicate a gap, use an ellipsis. Therefore, we can quote John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address this way:
Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country…. Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
The ellipsis here indicates that the writer has cut words from the original source. Connecting one part of the quote to another makes a point quickly.
Psst: Use parentheses to make asides. Sometimes, you want to offer a tidbit of related information. That information might strengthen the argument (providing details or context) or simply offer an aside. (Ben Yagoda loves parentheses).
Parentheses offer an efficient way to add background information. When you want to provide examples of a several things, use parentheses rather than saying “for example” over and over. When Barack Obama began to assemble his administration in 2008, he drew from America’s elite universities. New York Times columnist David Brooks described the emerging team:
January 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford). Phil.).
Here an elite, there an elite, everywhere an elite. Brooks uses parentheses to make this point nicely.
Profligate use of parentheses makes writing choppy. It’s disorienting when you get taken off the main train of thought, over and over. On the other hand, sometimes you want to show just how choppy the world can be. “So are my parentheses part of my style?” Yagoda asks (rhetorically). “Actually, yes. I am drawn to them in part because they express my belief that the world and language are multifarious, knotty, and illuminated by digression.”
Use quotation marks to say exactly what someone said. To indicate that you are using someone’s exact words, use quotation marks. So:
“Ask not what you country can do for you,” President Kennedy said. “Ask what you can do for your country.”
Use the speaker’s exact words. If you want to paraphrase, quote only the words that were spoken and use your own words to connect the phrases. So:
After challenging the nation to “ask what you can do for your country,” President Kennedy challenged other nations to “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
Punctuation usually belongs inside quotation marks Therefore: “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy said.
Put punctuation marks outside quotation marks to avoid confusion about what’s being quoted. When the TV journalist Tim Russert died, one website posted this headline: Tom Brokaw as Host of “Meet the Press?” The headline suggests that Brokaw was in fact the host, and that the program’s name contains a question. The headline should have asked, “Tom Brokaw as Host of “Meet the Press”?
Sometimes you need to quote someone quoting someone else. To do that, use single quotation marks, inside double quotation marks, like this:
“I went back to the doctor and he says, ‘Henry, I told you, you can’t make it, you’re going to die in that mine.’ I said, ‘Well, Dr. Craft, let me try it one more time,’ because I had some debts I wanted to pay.”
And what about a quote inside a quote inside a quote? Go back to double quotation marks (“), like this:
“I met Joyce at the rally, and she called out to me, ‘Let’s sing something. How about, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”? Let’s do that one.'”
Use exclamation marks-rarely!-to show excitement or get emphatic. I once worked with someone who used exclamation marks, lots of them, all the time!!!! Whether talking about something mundane or exciting, she ended every sentence with a throng of these happy punctuation marks!!!! I guess it’s not much different from someone who agrees with you all the time, or says “have a nice day” no matter what’s happening!!!! But it’s just too much!!!!
Sober wordsmiths avoid exclamation marks, except to show someone shouting. They note, for example, that the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech does not including shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The novelist Elmore Leonard suggests using no more than two or three exclamation marks every 100,000 words (the length of a book). And I agree. Mostly! To show real emotion, tell a great story rather than relying on perky punctuation.
And yet, I so admire Tom Wolfe that I admit the value of any and all of his exclamations. By one count, Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities contains 2,343 exclamation marks in 659 pages. “I’m trying to restore punctuation to its rightful place,” Wolfe once explained. “Dots, dashes, exclamation points were dropped out of prose because they ‘reeked of sentiment.’ But an! shows someone getting carried away. Why not? The writer carefully not using this punctuation doesn’t bother to convey what’s exciting to the reader.”
Wolfe uses the exclamation mark cleverly, conveying excessive zeal or innocence or naivete or boorishness. It works for him. For most of us, though, it’s like a sharp object better left in the drawer!