For many beginning writers, and also for some veterans, the punctuation can be confusing. The scoring rules sometimes seem arcane, abstract, and even random. But if we see punctuation as a form of traffic control: commands to stop, pause, look ahead, etc. – it is easy to master these necessary grammar rules. In a previous excerpt, we explained how to use periods, commas, colons, and semicolons.
Hyphenated Words to Combine Ideas. People often coin new words by combining several. Stuck in with hyphens, these expressions are often converted into individual words. The word for America’s national pastime began as base ball, evolved into base ball, and eventually took the modern form of baseball. The last example: email turned into email and then email.
Scripts offer a great way to show how things are related to each other. Consider the following sentence: “East Coast liberals like Hillary Clinton differ from West Coast liberals like Jerry Brown.” We could say, “West Coast liberals,” but that’s not quite so concise.
Of course, connecting too many things with hyphenation can be silly. Thus: “The African-American senator for the first time from the South Side of Chicago made his first candidacy for the White House in 2008.”
Use em-hyphens – like this one – to make aside. If you want to establish complete phrases or lists, look for a long dash known as 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 anguish among fans.
The em-dash helps the author to make an aside. The electronic script tells the reader to pause, as if to say, “Hey, check this out.”
Critics say em-dash makes writing cheaper by encouraging a loose, casual style. Without a doubt, the excessive use of any tool can be annoying. When we use em-dash too much, like here, it distracts and annoys the reader. But in moderation, again not like this, em-dash offers a useful and even fun way to emphasize a point.
Use ellipsis to show vanishing thought … Every time I see an ellipsis, a set of three points, I hear the sound of the harp music. Ellipses (plural of ellipsis) suggest that thinking turns off, reflects, open ideas. Ellipses allow us to deviate for a moment …
Case in point: “Dorothy considered her challenge: ‘If only I could see the Wizard of Oz …”‘ We see the girl with braided hair, a wicker basket, and a dog named Toto staring off into space, in her own world, lost in thought.
The ellipses also perform a more technical task: marking gaps in the quoted passages. Quotes often omit entire sections. People rarely speak in compact packages, so writers have to stitch together comments made at different times. To indicate a space, use an ellipsis. Therefore, we can quote John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address this way:
Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country … Let’s go out and lead the land we love, asking for His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our.
The ellipsis here indicates that the writer cut words from the original source. Connecting one part of the quote to another makes a point quickly.
Psst: use parentheses to make aside. Sometimes you want to offer a little related information. That information could strengthen the argument (by providing details or context) or simply provide an aside. (Ben Yagoda loves parentheses.)
Parentheses provide an efficient way to add basic information. When you want to provide examples of various things, use parentheses instead of saying “for example” over and over again. When Barack Obama began shaping his administration in 2008, he drew on 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 be sworn in as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law) looks on with pride. Nearby, your foreign policy advisers will be 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 clarify this point.
The wasteful use of parentheses makes the writing choppy. It is disorienting when you stray from the main train of thought, over and over again. On the other hand, sometimes you want to show how hectic the world can be. “So are my parentheses part of my style?” Yagoda asks (rhetorically). “Actually, yes. They appeal to me in part because they express my belief that the world and language are multiple, intricate, 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. Then:
“Don’t ask what your country can do for you,” said President Kennedy. “Ask what you can do for your country.”
Use the exact words of the speaker. If you want to paraphrase, quote only the words that were spoken and use your own words to connect the sentences. Then:
After challenging the nation to “ask what you can do for your country,” President Kennedy challenged other nations to “ask not what the United States will do for you, but what we can do together for the freedom of man.”
Punctuation is generally enclosed in quotes. So: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you,” Kennedy said.
Put punctuation marks outside the quotation marks to avoid confusion about what is being quoted. When television journalist Tim Russert died, a website ran this headline: Tom Brokaw as host of “Meet the Press?” The headline suggests that Brokaw was in fact the host and that the show’s name contains a question. The headline should have asked: “Tom Brokaw as host of” Meet the Press “?
Sometimes it is necessary to quote someone by quoting someone else. To do that, use single quotes, inside double quotes, like this:
“I went back to the doctor and he said, ‘Henry, I told you, you can’t come, you’re going to die in that mine.’ I said, ‘Well, Dr. Craft, let me try one more time,’ because I had some debts that I wanted to pay off. “
And what about a date within a date within a date? Go back to the double quotes (“), like this:
“I met Joyce at the rally, and she yelled at me, ‘Let’s sing something. How about,’ I’m not going to let anyone turn me around ‘? Let’s do it.’
Use exclamation marks (rarely!) To show enthusiasm or to be emphatic. I once worked with someone who used exclamation marks, a lot of them, all the time! Whether talking about something mundane or exciting, he ended each sentence with a multitude 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 going on! But it’s too much!
Sober word writers avoid exclamation marks except to show someone yelling. They point out, for example, that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression does not include shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Novelist Elmore Leonard suggests using no more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words (the length of a book). And I agree. Mainly! To show real emotion, tell a great story instead of relying on a lighthearted punctuation.
And yet I admire Tom Wolfe so much that I admit the value of each and every one of his exclamations. By one count, Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities contains 2,343 exclamation points on 659 pages. “I’m trying to get the score back where it belongs,” Wolfe once explained. “The dots, dashes and exclamation marks were removed from the prose because they ‘reeked of sentiment.’ But a! Show someone who gets carried away. Why not? The writer carefully not using this punctuation does not bother to convey what is exciting to the reader. “
Wolfe uses the exclamation point wisely, conveying excessive jealousy or innocence or naivety or rudeness. It works for him. For most of us, however, it is like a sharp object that is best left in the drawer.