Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Six Common Errors in Punctuation

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to the new writer is punctuation, and this is a pity, because punctuation can make or break the way your writing sounds to the inner ear. It is necessarily so, because the real function of punctuation is as a kind of 'pointing'; it tells you, when you are reading aloud, where to pause, what inflection to give a phrase, and what tune to use for a sentence. Without it, assuming your inner censor doesn't supply punctuation as you read, you will sound like Eliot Goblet.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the issues I most frequently see in independent fiction. 

Give It Some Space

Every punctuation mark, with the exception of opening quotes, apostrophes and the hyphen, must be followed by a space. Although most people have got this pretty well in hand as far as periods, commas, exclamation points and question marks are concerned, I often see this rule neglected with ellipses. 

Keep Your Marks Separated

With the exception of quotes, and occasionally apostrophes, no two punctuation marks ever appear adjacent to one another. Most people manage this most of the time, but dashes tend to be a problem. Think of a dash as another kind of ellipsis; both interrupt or terminate a passage, and each colours its sentence with a particular kind of shading. If you break off a sentence with a dash, do not follow it with a period or other termination mark. Similarly, if you use it to break in the middle of a sentence, do not also use a comma.

Initial Caps are Only For Initial Words

In dialogue, if the end of a speech does not coincide with the end of its enclosing sentence, do not capitalise the following word. You are still in the same sentence. The initial capital indicates the beginning of a new sentence, and as the terminating punctuation of the speech is enclosed within the speech quotes, it does not end the sentence.

CORRECT:  "That dog is going to vomit again," said Tabitha.

WRONG:     "That dog is going to vomit again," Said Tabitha.

Capitals Generally

Capital letters are used in three situations:

1) for proper nouns
2) for the first word in a sentence, as discussed supra, and
3) for title case.

Proper Nouns

This LOLCAT contains both a wrong (above) and a correct (BELOW) use of capitals.

When a noun is used as a name, it is a proper noun. This includes actual names: John, Mary, and so on, names of places: towns, streets, rivers etc., and anything that is used as a term of address: Mummy, Father, Boss, Destroyer of Galaxies, an so forth. It is important to distinguish between the 'borrowed' status of proper noun that is conferred on such words as these when they are used as terms of address and their natural status of common noun when they are used in the ordinary way.


"Your mother is a right old bitch," said Bob.
"Don't be such a bitch, Mother," said Joe.

"Your Mother is a right old bitch," said Bob.
"Don't be such a bitch, mother," said Joe.

Title Case

Above right, you can see Title Case correctly used
Title Case is so called because it is most commonly used for titles - titles of people (Protector of the Poor), books (Fifty-One Uses for Old Socks), and other works of art, organisation or engineering (Sydney Harbour Bridge, Blue Poles, Game Of Thrones). Because titles are a kind of name, this is really an application of the rule about proper and common nouns, discussed supra.  

Occasionally, one sees title case used in dialogue. This has rather fallen out of vogue nowadays, but it can be used with great effect to give a tone of dignified pomposity to a speech, e.g. "We Are Not Amused," said Queen Victoria. 

Verbs and Plural Subjects

If you ignore the spelling and the rest of the grammar, you can see the correct application of a present tense verb to a plural noun in the upper left

Something that I often see in recent years is a failure to give a present tense verb its correct inflexion when its subject is plural. This tends to afflict writers whose first language is not English, but there is a simple rule that in most cases can be relied on to avoid any stumbles.

A noun usually forms its plural by the addition of an 's' (yes, Virginia, there are many exceptions, mostly in words of Latin or Greek origin, but the overwhelming majority of English nouns do take 's' in the plural).

In a nicely symmetrical contrast to this, most verbs take 's' in the third person singular of the present tense, and are uninflected in the third person plural.

We can derive a rule of thumb from this. Consider it this way - in present tense there is always going to be an 's', either on the noun or the verb. If it is on the noun, you do not need it on the verb; if the verb then it is not wanted on the noun.

All your souls belong to me.
Your soul belongs to me.

Now don't go quoting me and saying I told you this was a rule of English Grammar. It is not; there are many, many exceptions to it: nouns that do not form their plurals with 's', and probably some irregular verbs that don't take 's' in the third person singular present, although I cannot think of any just now. What it is is an aide memoire that can help you remember what you need to remember, and will work in the majority of cases.

Place Commas Around Terms of Address

In Ancient of Days' first speech bubble, commas are correctly used around a term of address.

When a name or other term of address, as 'Mother', etc., is used in the middle of a speech, it will generally be best to bracket it with commas. This reflects the practice of English speakers of placing a tiny pause on each side of a name. If you listen carefully to people's conversations, you'll notice this. Punctuation goes a long way to give your dialogue a natural or unnatural sound; if the phrasing is off, your dialogue is going to sound stilted and unbelievable. 

Care must be taken, however, not to apply this as a blanket rule. You only want to place commas around a name or term of address when it is being used as a term of address.

CORRECT: The milkman woke me up, Mother, why does he have to make so much noise?

WRONG: My, mother, woke me up banging around in the kitchen.

The second sentence also illustrates another common error in the use of commas, but that's another story for another day.

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