Friday, April 26, 2013

Punc--EEK! Putting on the Breaks (Dashes, parentheses, colons and semi-colons)

Okay, another bad pun. Sorry about that.

English punctuation has a sliding scale of stopping power. From the gentle lift-off-the-accelerator of a comma to the stomp-on-the-brakes of a period (and its relatives, the question mark and exclamation point), a full range of pauses is at your command. Let’s look at each one, shall we?

We’ve spent several sessions on the comma, which can be used to indicate the briefest of pauses or simply to provide clarity. Commas give you a chance to take a quick breath and let you know when you need to watch for a minor change in direction or a lower speed limit.

One step up from the comma is the semi-colon (;). It’s a signal you should move from the accelerator to the brake, but you don’t need to panic. In fiction, use it with restraint in narrative but rarely if ever in dialogue. Most often you’ll see it used to replace a conjunction between two short independent clauses: Fernando drives a Ferrari; Sebastian drives a Red Bull. In this instance, the conjunction could be and, while, or but. The two halves of the sentence should be closely related, just as they would be if you used a conjunction. Fernando drives a Ferrari; the sky is blue just won’t work.

Next up you’ll find the paired punc, parentheses and dashes. Parentheses are so lackadaisical they must always be in pairs. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (the blue car). Notice the closing parenthesis at the end of the sentence. The closing punctuation, whether a comma, period, exclamation point, or question mark, goes outside the parentheses unless it belongs to the words inside. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (is that the blue car?). Yes, you need the question mark, close parenthesis, and the period. 

If a sentence were the Indy 500, parentheses would be caution periods. The race goes on but not a lot happens. You can safely go for a hot dog and ignore what happens inside the parentheses or during the caution. Some publishers prefer to have no parentheses in fiction.
Dashes, in the Indy 500 scenario, are pitstops. They’re loud and important. What goes on during a pitstop or within dashes can make a huge difference in the race or in the sentence. Plan your pitstops carefully and use them only when you really want to make a point: Fernando drives a Ferrari—the fastest  car on the track—while Sebastian drives a Red Bull—the most fuel-efficient car. Two things to notice here. First, when dashes occur in the middle of a sentence, you must use two of them. Don’t start the pitstop with a dash and finish with a comma. Second, a dash preempts a comma or semi-colon. See how I had to rewrite the sentence to delete the semi-colon and include a conjunction (while)?
Because the dash is so noticeable, use it with care. Make sure the information it encloses is something you want to emphasize.

Finally, the colon (:) is a red flag.  It yells, “STOP THE RACE. PAY ATTENTION. SOMETHING BIG IS GOING ON.” The colon usually prefaces “an element or series of elements amplifying or illustrating what has preceded the colon.” (CMOS 15, 6.65.) I used the colon in this way in the fourth and sixth paragraphs in this post. In UK usage it sometimes serves as an emphatic stop, but this use is generally not accepted in North America. The colon is seldom used in most modern fiction.

To sum up: to go from 60 mph to a standstill, use a comma, then a semi-colon, parentheses, dashes, colon, and period. 

Enjoy the race!