Friday, March 29, 2013

Punc--EEK! Commas

"Let's eat Grandma." 
"Let's eat, Grandma." 
See? Commas really do save lives.

All kidding aside, let's not knock the ubiquitous comma. It's the most common punctuation mark, which pretty much guarantees it's the most misused one. Writers have a lot of leeway with commas, but there are some rather hard and fast rules.

A little history might help. Back in the day, when most people had to have books read to them, commas provided a visual cue to the reader: Take a brief pause here! Here is a break in the rythmn! In our age of widespread literacy, commas serve much the same purpose. They set off sentence parts, indicate short pauses, and help avoid confusion. If you think of them that way, the rules will make more sense. Most of the time. There are exceptions, I'm afraid, but we'll get into those later.

Serial commas
Everyone wants to know about the serial comma, so I'll talk about that first. When the text includes a series of words or phrases,  the preferred usage demands a comma between them. When the final words/phrases are joined by a conjunction, put the comma before the conjunction. The flag is red, white, and blue. I ate breakfast, went for a walk, and collected the mail. My brother likes steak, I prefer chicken, and my sister is vegan. 

These sentences would not be incorrect without the final commas, but take a second look at the final sentence. Suppose it was in a book, and the line broke after the word "sister."
My brother likes steak, I prefer chicken and my sister 
is vegan. 
Without the comma after chicken, a slight chance exists that someone could think I prefer (to eat) chicken and my sister. Eww.

If all the elements of a sentence are short and joined by conjunctions, you don't need any commas. Sally ordered eggs and bacon and toast.  If they're long or complicated, use commas to indicate pauses. If you think about reading the text aloud, you'll see where you need to insert commas.

When items in a series include internal punc of their own, separate them with semi-colons. I'd like to introduce my mother, Ginny; my father, Walt; my brother, Tom; and my sister, Peg. 

(I might as well point out here that, yes, you do need a comma after father, mother, brother, sister unless you have more than one of any of them. My brother Tom [no comma] indicates "not my brother Dave." This is one of those nitpicky rules you just have to learn.)

Note that some writers and publishers don't like the serial comma. Be guided by your publisher's wishes and, above all, by clarity. If a comma would make your writing clearer, by all means use it. 

Okay, that's enough for one lesson. More on commas next week.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Punc--EEK Part 4-Quotes within quotes

Quotes within quotes. *Evil laughter* No, seriously, this isn't so bad. You've already mastered the basics of punctuating dialogue and splitting it in several different ways. What do you have to worry about?

First, what is a quote within a quote? At its most basic, it's a character citing what someone else said.
Like this:
John said,"Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you' yesterday."  Notice John's dialogue is punctuated normally, and Billy's dialogue within John's uses single quotes. That's it. The fun starts with more complicated sentences.

John said, "Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you,' so I'm not going to school today."  In this sentence, Billy's quote is followed by a comma (inside the single quote) because of the ensuing dependent clause (so I'm not going to school today.) Make sense so far? Let's ramp up the fun.

John said, "Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you!' so I'm not going to school today."  See the exclamation point? Notice there is no comma? Very good. If Billy's quote ended with a question mark in this sentence there would be no comma there, either.

I know you're all dying to hear about the weird punc I mentioned in last week's post. Such weirdness usually occurs at the ends of sentences.

John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you.'"  Aha. Look at that weird '" at the end. Three apostrophes? No. It's a single quote ' to end Billy's dialogue, followed by a double quote " to end John's dialogue.

Suppose you want to inject some excitement. John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you!'"  Punctuated like this, the sentence indicates that Billy is excited. Why? Because the exclamation point is inside Billy's dialogue. Suppose Billy doesn't care, but John does. You'd punc it like this: John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you'!"  I know, I know. That looks weird. Please don't cry. Remember my basic rule: Punctuate the dialogue. Decide which of your speakers needs the exclamation point, and put it in his speech.

Here's a variant with a question mark in it: Mom said, "You're not going to school because Billy told you,'Sue is going to get you'?"  You could replace the question mark with an exclamation point, but you can't use both. Sorry, but you can't.

In general, exclamation points and question marks stay with the dialogue they belong to, while commas and periods go inside the quote marks. As we saw in the preceding paragraphs, there may sometimes be flexibility. When that happens, the writer gets to make the decision based on where the emphasis needs to be.

One more example, then I'll let your tired minds rest. Who wrote, "All the world's a stage"? The question mark does not belong to the quotation, so it goes outside the quote marks. But: Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage." 

I know you'll find plenty of variations and have tons of questions. Keep remembering to punctuate the dialogue, and you'll get through most situations. If you're still puzzled, consult Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Ask your editor, or ask me (and I'll run straight to CMOS or EOS)!

Next time, we'll start on commas.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Punc--EEK! Pt. 3 More dialogue

As we saw last time, dialogue can be split by a tag, and I gave you some tips for how to punctuate that. Again, always remember that you are punctuating the dialogue.

Sometimes you need to split dialogue with an action, and the punc for that looks very strange to a lot of people. Here's an example:

"I think we should go"--she pointed down the hallway--"to the left."

Now I know a lot of you are scratching your heads and wondering if I've gone nuts. Because you want to put those dashes inside the quotes, right? But what's the rule? Punctuate the dialogue. The dashes don't belong to the spoken words, they belong to the tag because it interrupts the dialogue. So they surround the tag. They don't go inside the quotes.

By the way, the action should be a complete sentence in its own right. Please, please, please, don't write something like this:  "I think we should go"--pointing down the hallway--"to the left." An alternative version like "I think we should go," she said, pointing down the hallway, "to the left." is acceptable. However, the tighter, more active "she pointed down the hallway" is preferred.

ALERT: Word processing programs will want to use close quotes after the second dash. Don't let them get away with that. One way to get around the program's proclivity is to put a space after the dash, type the opening quotes, then delete the space. A bit cumbersome, I agree, and if someone knows of a shortcut, I'd love to hear from you.

Sometimes a long speech spills over into a new paragraph. You don't see this much anymore, but it does still happen. In that case, use close quotes at the end of the last paragraph only. Use opening quotes at the beginning of every paragraph:

     "I was born in a small town in northern Arizona," he said. "My parents and grandparents were born there, too, and everyone assumed I'd raise my family in that same small town.
     "But I have itchy feet, can't stand staying in one place for too long. So I left that town behind as soon as I got out of high school, and never looked back. How can a guy stand the same old faces and places all his life?
     "Paris, Calcutta, Adelaide--I love seeing new cities. Gotta keep moving. Someday I'm gonna make it to the moon."

 Okay, that's an awful example, but you get the idea. All the punc stays the same, except you don't use close quotes until the very end. 

Next time, we'll play with quotes within quotes and the weird-looking punctuation that sometimes results.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Punc--EEK Part 2-Splitting dialogue

Last week we talked about  punctuating basic dialogue. The first rule is that punctuation almost always goes inside the quote marks--we'll get to the exceptions later. Let's take it one step further today, and split the dialogue before and after a dialogue tag (he said, asked John, etc.).

The important thing to remember is to punctuate the spoken words as you would any other sentence. The dialogue tag in the middle needs to be separated from these words by commas and quote marks.

"I think," said Jack, "you're making a mountain out of a molehill." Note the commas after think and Jack, the lower case letters at the beginning of said and you're. Also note quote marks after think, and before you're. There is a space between the quotes and the tag. I've marked the spaces in red to make it clear.

Here's another example. "Carol," he asked, "are you sure?" Again, there is a comma at the end of the first part of the dialogue and at the end of the tag. The first letter of the tag and the first letter of the second part of the dialogue are lower case (unless either one begins a name). Most especially, note that the question mark comes at the end of the sentence and inside the quote marks.

Naturally, there are exceptions and variations. Be guided by how you want the reader to "hear" the dialogue. If you read the first example aloud, notice that you slow down a bit when you come to the tag. This suggests to the reader that Jack is speaking slowly, perhaps with an emphasis on I to differentiate his opinion from someone else's, or that he's not entirely sure of what he's saying.

Let's try something a bit more advanced. It's not really complicated if you remember that you are punctuating sentences.

"I'll remember that," said Jack. "Punctuation is really complicated." Here the dialogue consists of two sentences: I'll remember that. Punctuation is really complicated. So you put a period after Jack. Many writers think that if dialogue continues, the tag is always followed by a comma. Not true. If the dialogue consists of two or more sentences, put a period after the tag.

One last consideration today. The rules about question marks and exclamation marks we learned last week also apply to split dialogue.

"I'll remember that!" said Jack. "It's complicated."
"Can you remember that?" the teacher asked. "It's not that hard."

Homework: if you have an example of split dialogue that puzzles you, ask me.

Friday, March 1, 2013


Let's face it: punctuation is geeky. Nerdy even. But without it all our sentences would run together we wouldnt understand each other I mean itd be a big mess wouldnt it

You don't know how hard it was for me to write that last bit! My point is, punctuation serves a purpose, just as traffic lights do. Punc keeps the traffic from tangling up, tells us when to take a mental breath, and indicates emotion.

Entire tomes have been written on punctuation. My personal fave is Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss, but there are plenty of others. I'm not going to join the crowd, but from time to time I'm going to offer some simple primers. Yes, you can still leave the complicated stuff to your editor, and no, I won't get into the serial comma. Still, your editor will love you if you get the complicated stuff right, and the serial comma is fun to argue about.

Today I offer a primer on punctuating basic dialogue. Let's start with a simple declarative sentence.

"I'm hungry," said Mary. Note the double quotes, the comma before the end quote, and the lower case s in said. Okay so far? Let's try another.

"I'm hungry," said Mary. "When is supper?"  In this instance, note that we keep the period after Mary and use opening quotes before When. That's because the two bits of dialogue are separate sentences. Also note that the question mark is inside the end quote. So far, so good.

"I'm hungry!" said Mary. Everything is the same as in the first example, except that we've used an exclamation point instead of a comma. ALERT: grammar check programs will often insist that the s of said should be capitalized. They are wrong. They often insist the same following a question mark ("When is supper?" said Mary.),  and they are still wrong.

That wasn't so bad, was it? Next week we'll try splitting a sentence and see how that gets punctuated.

No homework, but you get points if you can explain the reference in the title.