An Editor Grumbles About Punctuation: Exclamation Points, Commas, and Semicolons.

An Editor Grumbles About Punctuation: Exclamation Points, Commas, and Semicolons.

As you may have guessed from the title, today we’re going to talk about different errors in punctuation. I know, it’s everyone’s favorite thing to read about on a Thursday morning. But punctuation is one of those little things that can screw up a good book, especially when it changes the meaning of the sentence. Knowing the rules for how these work will help you do better in your first draft, which means editing and proofreading will go much easier.

(Note: These are for books or at least blogs/short stories. If you’re texting or writing a tweet, you do you. I don’t care.)

  • Multiple Exclamation Points

You’re all excited!!!! This big thing is happening in your story!!! What are you going to do about it?!?!?

Well, you’re not going to write it like that. Exclamation points are important for emphasis. But if you use more than one or use them too often, they lose all of their power. Just like the boy who cried wolf all the time, then when an actual wolf came, he’d wasted all his exclamation points talking about his oatmeal, so his parents couldn’t hear him, and he had to do the wolf’s laundry for a week or something.

In the same vein, you don’t need to combine exclamation points with question marks. If the question isn’t emphatic enough on its own, you can reword it or use a (good) dialogue tag to add the emphasis. But throwing exclamation points in is lazy writing.

  • Commas

I debated making this entire post about commas, but I was told “no one wants to read about commas” and “you’re just being grumpy, quit complaining about commas.” But they definitely get a mention here anyway. I’d guess 80% of my proofreading is adding and removing commas. The most common mistakes are:

The Oxford Comma:

I know the New York Times and AP stylebooks discourage the Oxford comma, but Chicago, APA, MLA, Strunk and White, and most other common stylebooks require it. Odds are, if you’re writing a book or short story, whatever publisher you go through is going to require one of those. Plus, it generally reduces ambiguity. In the cases where it doesn’t, you’d have the same ambiguity without it.

Using Commas with a Name:

My sister Hope likes pizza.

My dog, Belle, also likes pizza, but she picks off the olives.

In the first sentence, you need the name to know which of my sisters I’m talking about. Since it’s essential to the sentence, it’s not separated by commas. In the second, “my dog” is enough detail that you don’t need to know her name. In many cases, it’s a judgment call. Think “if I took out everything between the commas, will the reader know what I’m talking about?” If I only have one dog and she’s already been introduced, you would almost always use the commas. If I have six and it’s essential to know which one I’m talking about, you wouldn’t.

Commas before conjunctions:

Hope doesn’t like olives either, but she just doesn’t order a pizza with olives.

Belle is sad but isn’t allowed to order her own pizza.

This is one you probably learned in elementary or middle school, but it’s easy to forget. If what comes after the conjunction is a complete sentence, you put a comma in front of it. If it isn’t, you don’t. That’s mostly true anyway.

There are a couple major instances where the rule can be broken. First, when not having the comma creates ambiguity:

Belle watched as Hope ate her pizza without olives, and sighed.

In this case, you want the comma to make it obvious that Belle is the one who sighed, not Hope.

Second, when the sentences are short:

Order pizza but don’t get olives.

You could put a comma there, but it’s unnecessary.

  • Semicolons

Semicolons have two primary uses, both in place of a comma. The first (and most common) is to replace “, and” when you want the sentences to be closer together. In that case, you’ll want to be sure that they really are complete sentences. Follow the instructions above to be sure that it’s actually replacing “, and” rather than just “and.”

The second is when a comma would be ambiguous in a list.

Bill ran three, six, or nine miles; rode his bike across three fields and a cemetery; and ate six pizzas with olives every day.

In this case, since you have commas in one of the parts, using commas to distinguish between items in the list would be confusing. So semicolons are used instead.

Obviously, even knowing the rules, you’re still going to make mistakes. There will still be cleaning to do. But hopefully, if you can keep these in mind, your editing will go a lot smoother, whether you’re doing it yourself or have someone else do it for you.

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