A Very Serious Guide to Punctuation

Ah, punctuation. Where would we be without it? In run-on sentence hell, that’s where. The power of these tiny little marks in helping us to communicate effectively with our fellow human beings never fails to astound me. But also, punctuation is hard, yo.

So here is my guide to each punctuation mark:

. The full stop. Or a period, if you’re American. Or a full point, if you’re New Hart’s Rules. The full stop isn’t one of those marks that can be one thing or another, full of elegance and whimsy. The full stop knows where it’s going, and that’s at the end of a sentence. It gets its shit done.

! The exclamation mark. It also goes on the end of the sentence, but it’s a flashy little bugger. Always showing off, waving its pointy little head about, making everything seem so exciting! It’s like one of those annoying perky people who always seem to be in a good mood! If it were a person, the exclamation mark would get punched in the face a LOT.

? The question mark. This does exactly what it says on the tin. It marks a question. How dull. I guess you can also use it for sentences that aren’t technically questions? It adds uncertainty to what would otherwise be a plain statement? But maybe that’s nearly as annoying as Mr Flashy-Pants Exclamation Mark up there? And so maybe that would also earn it a punch in the face now and then?

, The comma. Commas are little bastards. Commas are the punctuation mark that teaches you that life is full of lies, that everything everyone has ever told you should be questioned and questioned again. Your teachers told you that you should put a comma where you breathe. They were lying to you, because they were trying to spare you from the ugly truth: that there are vocative commas, listing commas, parenthetical commas, Oxford commas, commas that set off introductory phrases, commas that go with independent clauses and coordinating conjunctions, commas that will make you want to die because you’re not sure whether or not it should be there. Commas do nearly as many jobs as Miss Rabbit in Peppa Pig, so it’s no wonder people can’t keep track of them all.

; The semicolon. The grown-up, sophisticated punctuation mark. The Ferrero Rocher of punctuation, if you like. According to most sources, a semicolon has two uses: separating two independent but related clauses, and separating items in a list where the items already contain internal punctuation. But there’s a secret third use – making you look like a Proper Writer; one who Knows Some Shit.

: The colon. Let’s be honest: most of us could go our whole lives without really needing a colon (the punctuation mark, that is. Pretty sure you need the one in your body). Except me, apparently. I seem to quite like them. Colons introduce further information, so they’re pretty handy. But alas for the poor colon, as it is so often usurped by…

The dash. When in doubt, hoy a dash in there. This amazingly versatile punctuation mark will save your ass when you’re really not sure which one you should be using – it’s surprisingly hard to get dashes completely wrong. You should use em dashes with US English and en dashes with UK English, and you should always, always call them em/en dashes and not rules, just to really piss off the typographers.

The ellipsis. What can we say about the ellipsis…? So dramatic… So emotional… There are two things you should bear in mind about ellipses. One is that there is no one set way of styling and spacing them, no matter how hard anyone tries to argue otherwise. And the second is that if you are getting your work professionally edited, your editor will almost certainly remove at least half of them. Sorry…

“”/‘’ Quotation marks. If you’re British, quotation marks are proper confusing. We all get taught “speech marks” at school, which were double quotation marks. But at some point, at least if you’re going to work in publishing, you have to come to terms with the fact that UK books largely use single quotation marks, and they are used for many things that are not speech. This is like the commas. If you’re confused, blame your “teachers”.

the apostrophe. Apostrophes indicate contractions and show possession. The third use of the apostrophe is to sow discord in editors’ groups. Or is that editors groups? At least we can all agree it’s not editor’s groups. Unless you’re talking about one editor’s groups. Maybe you’re talking about an editors’ group’s discord. Have I made your head’s hurt?

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