That Little Talk About Punctuation Abuse


I’ve talked about punctuation abuse over the years, and I thought I’d bring it up again as a friendly community service reminder that this form of abuse will cause your readers to toss your book into the gardener’s leaf shredder.

Comma:  For the life of me, I’ll never understand why editors have decided to downgrade the comma. Sadly, this is one little puppy that suffers from no abuse. In fact, it’s under utilized, which forces readers to re-read sentences two or three times to make sure they understood it correctly.

Virtually every book I’ve read from the Big Pants Publishers have house rules that obliterate the comma. Call me old fashioned, but MY house rules are this: Go comma, or go home. I want our readers to understand a sentence at the first read, not the third. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Learn proper comma usage. Yes, that’s an order.

Ellipses: I once had a manuscript that contained over 250 ellipses shoved into a 90,000 word count. I nearly fainted. Almost every other paragraph was interrupted with … . Made me want to chew glass.

I understand the desire to use ellipses…it’s akin to taking a breath or adding emphasis. But it also creates lazy writing…especially if you used it 250 times.

Em Dash: A cousin of the ellipsis, the em dash performs the similar job of taking a breath or adding emphasis. Use too many of these, and you’ll experience chaffing and a desire to shave your eyebrows.

Exclamation Point: The idea of this little beauty is to convey excitement or extreme caution, as in, “Holy garbanzo beans, I got a seven-figure contract deal!” Yah, I’d say that warrants an exclamation point. But only use one.

The problems begin when you use them too much. They end up disappearing into the white noise. If you have a couple hundred exclamation points in your writing, then you’re either over-excitable and need a Xanax, or you’re lazy.

Don’t depend on the poor exclamation point to do your dirty work. There are a million ways to convey extreme emotion without depending on punctuation. You’re a writer, so write. Don’t be a lazy pants.

Semi-colon: Cousin of the comma that connects two related or contrasting statements together. “The Rescue Beagles make excellent margaritas after a hard day’s editing; it makes my life worth living.”

This little sucker is classically used in academic nonfiction, where we’re not necessarily looking for smooth pacing and flow. We’re looking to get our idea across with an economy of words. But more and more, we’re seeing them in fiction and narrative nonfiction, and I’m not necessarily a fan because, well, they feel academic-ish and tend to kill the melodic flow.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use them; just know how and when to use them. Time was the semi-colon did more heavy lifting than the comma because it added a bigger breath, or added more emphasis. But with fiction and narrative nonfiction, it’s OK to allow the comma to take on a bit more responsibility.

But here’s the thing…and this is an organic decision…ask yourself if you’d be better off breaking the sentence up into two sentences. “When the Rescue Beagles mix up a batch of margaritas, they invite the entire canine neighborhood over for drinks; they’re all about the partying.”

Personally, I would prefer to break that sentence up because the last part has a bit of a kapow, so I’d like to give it bigger emphasis by making it its own sentence. But it’s a personal decision.

For a concise and humorous take on semi-colon’s proper use, go no further than The Oatmeal.

Taking a page out of my love for Twinkies, moderation is key. Punctuation overuse is as naughty as eating too many Twinkies. Don’t abuse your writing by going overboard. Write consciously, and don’t be afraid to read your writing out loud. It’s how we find the warts. Now go out and be brilliant!

3 Responses to That Little Talk About Punctuation Abuse

  1. John Allan says:

    I’ve read several novels where some semi-colons were misplaced. But there’s no doubt the comma is underused, something that often does cause uncertainty, or even confusion, over meaning.

  2. What a great post! Love your take on this subject – don’t go overboard – OK – but do get on the boat! I’m off to be brilliant. Thanks

  3. You never disappoint. Love the graphic!

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