That Little Talk About Punctuation Abuse

August 7, 2013


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!

Punctuation is there for a reason

September 29, 2011

I’ve been engaged in any number of discussions regarding punctuation and their use. For instance, take the poor bedgraggled and disrespected exclamation point. God love it, but it gets more than its fair share of abuse because writers use it to take the place of their writing.

For instance:

“Beagle! Get me my margarita! Now!”


I felt my heart skip one beat…then two. Oh dear God, was I experiencing tequila withdrawl? Would doctors take a sample of my blood and find… blood? I knew my body better than anyone, and I knew that my circulatory system ran on tequila. I had to shout out my demands before I lost consciousness. “Beagle, get me my margarita. STAT.

Ok, so the first sentence actually works, but think about its impact if I used exclamation points almost every other sentence. I once edited a manuscript with over five-hundred of our little pointy friend. What happened is the writer forced the poor exclamation point to do all the heavy lifting of writing. The result was that his writing was quite pedestrian because there was no show. Only tell. Hence, my second example of how you can avoid overusing punctuation while forcing yourself to be a better, clearer writer.

The flip side, of course, is under-use of punctuation. Like the poor comma. I’ve noticed over the years that my dippy/swooshy little friend has been given its walking papers. I’m from the old school, so this aberration doesn’t make me happy because it has created a lot more confusion. Let me re-read this paragraph five more times so I can figure out what the author is trying to say. A dearth of commas is not your friend. And let’s face it, commas are there to make the reading easier and clearer.

I know, the comma has been slimmed down and put on a restrictive diet in order to save money. Newspapers dropped them in order to save on space. Editors who are twelve-years-old also have dropped the comma, possibly due to the fact that the teaching of English has waned over the years. For whatever reason, commas shouldn’t be trifled with. Learn how to use them. And here’s why…

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