Tag Archive - punctuation tips

Don’t Abuse the Dot-Dot-Dots

Writers often succumb to dot abuse. Well, I’ve heard some people call ellipses “dots.” I’m not talking about the candy here. These are very useful bits of punctuation that every writer will need to use sometime. But these three little dots get tossed around too much and are used where they shouldn’t.

The ellipsis consists of three evenly spaced dots (periods) with spaces between the ellipsis and surrounding letters or other marks. The only time you don’t leave a space between an ellipsis “dot” and a surrounding mark is when it falls next to a quotation mark:

  • “. . . I . . . I can’t breathe . . .”

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Scare Quotes Are Not All That Scary

There’s a time and place for every punctuation mark. Using any of them excessively or incorrectly is, well, just plain scary. In fact, there’s a style for punctuating a word or phrase that you are using in a nontraditional way: scare quotes.

Occasionally you will use a word in a nonstandard way. You may want to note that you’re using it as slang or to convey irony or sarcasm. Setting the word off in quotation marks tells the reader “I know this isn’t the way you normally understand this word.” Or “This is not a term I came up with.”

For example:

  • The commissioner’s platform of infrastructure “investment” didn’t fool astute voters; he lost by ten percentage points.  (The writer uses investment as a euphemism for tax increase.)
  • Joe and his “harem” showed up at the game just in time for the tip-off. (Harem is used as slang or irony here, not in the traditional meaning of the word.)

Scare quotes are very useful in making clear your “different” meaning. We sometimes mimic these written quotes when speaking by making quote marks with our fingers, to imply the same thing.

Once you’ve alerted readers that you’re using the term as slang, euphemism, or another nontraditional usage, there’s no need to continue setting it off with quotation marks if you need to keep referring to that word or term. Readers are pretty smart; they will get it. Continuing to use the quotation marks will be scary. Trust me.

Semicolons: Commonly Misused Bits of Punctuation

The semicolon is the most commonly misused punctuation mark. Bryan Garner (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage) calls the semicolon a “supercomma” because it’s more than a comma.

If you can remember these three uses for a semicolon, you will be a super semicolon user.

  • Use a semicolon to separate two independent clauses that are not joined by one of these conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (think of fanboys as an acronym to remember them all) .

Example: John was the first to cross the finish line; Bob couldn’t find it.

Using one of the conjunctions, the sentence would require a comma:

John was the first to cross the finish line, but Bob couldn’t find it.

  •  When adverbs like however, therefore, indeed, besides, nevertheless, are used to join two independent clauses, use a semicolon before the adverb.

Example: Bob ran five miles every day; nevertheless he couldn’t keep up with John.

  •  Use a semicolon to separate items in a list when the items are already separated by commas.

Example: The winners of the marathon hailed from Little Rock, Arkansas; Denver, Colorado; and Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Because a comma is required between the city and state, the city-state entities are separated by semicolons to avoid confusion and comma overload.

 Be careful not to confuse a semicolon with a colon. They perform two different functions. The semicolon invites the reader to pause; the colon moves the reader forward. The colon precedes a series of elements that amplify or expand on what comes before the colon. Also make sure to use a colon only after a complete sentence, not a fragment. For example:

Incorrect: My favorite weekend activities include: sleeping in, pigging out, and cheering for the home team.

Correct: I’m looking forward to my weekend activities: sleeping in, pigging out, and cheering for the home team.

On another note, fiction writers often misuse semicolons! The most common misuse is in setting apart a phrase, and what should be used here is an em dash, such as in this example:

Incorrect: He lost his money at the slot machines; every single penny.

Correct: He lost his money at the slot machines—every single penny.

So, try hard not to misuse this tiny bit of punctuation.

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