How to Abuse and Neglect Punctuation Marks

punctuation marks

Let’s all try not to assault readers with punctuation marks

What is it about punctuation marks that cause so many bad sentence constructions?

You know the sentences I’m talking about. They’ve got random commas, missing quotation marks, and way too many exclamation points.

To make matters worse, some writers break the rules and get away with it while others are chastised for doing (what appears to be) the same thing.

E.E. Cummings ignored most of the rules and made up a few of of his own, and now his poetry is studied in universities. Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotation marks with the dialogue in his novel, and he won a Pulitzer Prize.

And then there’s the Internet. Now, everyone’s a writer with a blog and a bunch of social media profiles. Bad grammar and badly placed punctuation marks have become rampant.

Common Mistakes and Abuses of Punctuation Marks


Typos are one thing. Not knowing the correct way to write a sentence is another thing. But blatantly misplacing or misusing punctuation marks is just plain reckless.

Too many commas

I’m a big fan of the serial comma, but let’s not get carried away. Commas often indicate pauses but they should not be used to tell the reader where to pause.

You can get away with placing commas at pause points to some extent, but only because many of our natural pauses occur where clauses end or after each item in a list.

Lots of writers use commas, to tell readers where to pause, and take a breath, as if the readers can’t figure it out, on their own.

We all pause in different places and your writing will feel forced and unnatural if you use punctuation marks as if they are musical notations.

Quotation marks for emphasis

I have to admit, this is becoming one of my pet peeves: putting words and phrases in quotation marks for emphasis. Here are some examples:

  • You know, they just “had” to go fishing last weekend.
  • Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to “rock your boat.”
  • If you sign up, they’ll send you a “free book!”

Quotation marks are for dialogue, quoted material, and sometimes for titles or headlines. But for some reason, people have gone crazy with quotation marks. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated to “unnecessary quotes.”

Writers who abuse quotation marks in this manner need to have a little more faith in their readers. Trust that they will know where to place emphasis. If you really need to tell the reader which word(s) get stressed, then use italics. But try to avoid that, too.

This use probably stems from the (informal) practice of using quotation marks to indicate that something is “so-called.” Here’s an example:

That “writer” over there doesn’t seem to have a dictionary.

In this case, quotation marks are placed around “writer” to suggest that the person is a so-called writer, but actually isn’t much of a writer at all. This usage is almost always derogatory and sarcastic. Use with caution; insulting other writers is not going to do anything positive for your reputation.

Too many punctuation marks!!!

Did you hear me??? I wrote a book!!! Let me tell you all about it …..

Some people are so passionate. It’s inspiring, really, except when I’m reading a novel or some other piece of writing that should be of a professional quality. It’s one thing when my friend on Facebook tell me that her kid just said Mama!!! It’s another thing entirely when a character in a novel is really, really, very excited!!!

When you use three question marks instead of one, does the question become deeper? More mysterious? Is an expression with three exclamation points more exciting or more imperative than an expression with just one exclamation point? And what is up with using more than three dots in an ellipsis? Does a five-dot ellipsis mean it’s taking you longer to trail off than a three-dot ellipsis?

While this usage is acceptable in casual settings (and really, what usage isn’t acceptable in casual settings?), it’s a bit much when you’re writing at the professional level. Too many punctuation marks distract the reader and make the text look sloppy. They also render a pushy, in-your-face, or desperate tone. But like I said, on Facebook, they’re kinda cute.

There’s this thing called an ampersand

A few weeks ago, I started reading this novel (whose name shall be withheld), & before I finished page two, it occurred to me that something was wrong with the writing. I scanned the page & realized that the author was using ampersands in place of the word and.

& let me tell you, it was annoying.

Prose is not a sign. It’s not a tweet. The ampersand is not a word, it’s a symbol. & we are not writing in hieroglyphics. We write in words & sentences. I don’t have anything personal against the ampersand. It looks nice on signage & it comes in handy on Twitter. It looks cute on trees where two lovers have carved their names:

Jack & Kate <3

Aw. How sweet.

But it really makes the reading rough when it’s used to replace the word and through an entire piece of writing.

Rough Writers

I know. I’m a mean old grammar snob. I’m sure folks who use these constructions are on the edge of their seats right now, scouring my blog for some little mistake, some place where I used an extra exclamation mark or an ampersand. I’m sure some are getting ready to drop comments letting me know that they “like” using quotation marks for emphasis, that it’s their “style.” !!!

That’s fine. I’m just pointing out what is correct usage and what is not. If writers want to break the rules and take a few creative liberties, that’s their business, and I hope it works out. Some of my favorite writers have forgone the rules (and I love them for it).

But keep this in mind: when your text is peppered with extra, unnecessary punctuation marks, it’s a distraction to readers. Like I said, the book with all the ampersands had me thinking more about what was off about the text than what was happening in the story (and the story wasn’t very interesting either, which may explain why the author resorted to gimmicks). For the record, I didn’t make it past page thirty of that book, and I’ll never recommend it to anyone.

Taking Creative Liberties

I’m all for breaking the rules, but only if there’s a good reason for it. Cormac McCarthy broke the rules and got into Oprah’s book club. E.E. Cummings broke the rules became a celebrated American author.

Why do some writers reap rewards when they break the rules while others just look like amateurs?

I personally think this has to do with the logic behind breaking the rules. Cormac McCarthy’s book was written in a minimalist fashion. The characters didn’t even have names. And E.E. Cummings wasn’t writing prose at all; he was writing poetry, which naturally allows for more creative liberties.

There’s a difference between tinkering with the rules as an expermiment in art or because the style of the narrative calls for it and breaking the rules as a way to differentiate yourself as a unique writer or simply because you’re some kind of literary rebel.

Some writers believe they are branding themselves as an author or making their work stand out because they don’t capitalize the first word of every sentence, but these are just gimmicks that distract readers from the content. You’re telling readers that your work doesn’t stand on its own and you need to resort to silly tricks to make it seem interesting.

What really sucks is when good writers use these constructions. More than once I’ve read prose and poetry that was great except for all the weird punctuation marks and bad grammar. What would have been a wonderful story or beautiful poem gets lost in the mess. And that’s a shame.

The rules of grammar aren’t there to keep you in line, they are there to help you write prose and verse that readers can navigate with ease. Always keep that in mind, and when you do break the rules or use unusual punctuation marks and formatting, do so with good reason.

Have you seen writers break the rules effectively? Have you seen writers break the rules in a way that interfered with your ability to enjoy the reading experience? What was the difference? When is it okay the break the rules?

Reign in those punctuation marks and keep on writing!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

35 Responses to “How to Abuse and Neglect Punctuation Marks”

  1. Caliban says:

    Oh well said!! Errr…”typed”.

    Though I still abuse grammar in character voice…sigh.

    • Ha! It makes sense to make grammar exceptions in dialogue, but I still wouldn’t put three exclamation marks in character quotes. There are lots of other rules to break in dialogue ;)

  2. AF says:

    Damned good post!!! Well done. I think you’ve explained yourself very clearly – and that’s often not the case. So, thank you……….

    !!!??? ;)

  3. I love your blog. It makes me feel like I’m not alone and serves to remind me to watch out for bad habits that try to form while I’m writing.

  4. Ha ha love this post! I don’t always read posts about grammar, but the title got me right away. I agree with what you wrote, too! Incorrect grammar for the sake of standing out can get ridiculous. When used the right way, though, I think it can be a useful tool. Are there any rules that you break at times, Melissa?

    • Oh yes, I enjoyed breaking the rules for the examples and block-quote portions of this post. I pretty much ignore the rules completely when I’m writing personal notes, brainstorming, outlining, etc. Other than that, I break the rules whenever I think doing so makes the narrative better. I wouldn’t rewrite the rules of grammar as a way to brand or differentiate myself because I mostly find that when authors do that, it makes their work harder to read. Thanks!

  5. PiP says:

    Hi great post!

    As a grammar guru can you please recommend a decent book(s) re. basic grammar and punctuation?
    I would like to go right back to basics and completely review and improve my writing style.

    Kind regards,

    PiP

  6. Nicole Rushin says:

    Great post. It seems society has lost its appreciation for grammar. Sitting down to write a letter use to be appreciated and taken seriously. Now it all symbols and shortcuts and texting. I even heard from a teacher they were discussing not teaching spelling in schools. How could that be?

    It looks like you made some subtle changes to your blog style or maybe it is just me. It looks nice.

    • Jen says:

      I love this post. I shared it on Facebook in the hopes that some of my teaching friends would see it and maybe use if as a resource at the start of the school year.

      Nicole–unfortunately, spelling is no longer being taught in some schools. I know at the middle school that I interned at last school year, one of the Language Arts teachers was telling me the Board doesn’t want them spending so much time on spelling because it takes away from focusing on improvement areas for State mandated tests, such as the Mastery Tests. It is becoming a growing problem now because it is not being enforced at all, which allows students to go on thinking that it is okay to use chat lingo in papers. It is horrible! I hope they come to their senses soon; I can’t imagine what lengths the English language might reach if spelling isn’t reinforced. (On a completely un-related note, your horse is beautiful!)

    • Thanks Nicole. Yes, the standards for grammar and good writing have really reached new lows. It was bad when I was going through the public school system, but I think it’s even worse now, both from what I’ve heard (from educators) and what I’ve seen (from students). It’s sad.

      Yes, Writing Forward just got a little makeover last week. I’m glad you noticed and liked it . Thank you :)

  7. What I particularly like about this advice is that it reminds writers that we are to write in such a way that our reader gets the joy of discovering our character’s voice. By using rich vocabulary and correct grammar, my reader will know that the pitch of Emma’s voice rising and the elevation of her height due to her tiptoes being the last bit of flesh connected with the ground beneath her indicated her excitement. How dull to say, “Emma was very, very, really, excited!!!

    Please forgive me though Melissa for disagreeing in one small way. Even on FB and in informal writing (e-mails to friends, hand written notes to teachers, etc.) I try to use correct grammar. For one, many people know I am an aspiring writer, so they’re often looking to my writing as a model for correctness. For another, I am very lazy, and if I do something the easy way rather than the correct way long enough, another bad habit is formed.

    I love your blog!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • I agree with what you’re saying, that writers have an extra responsibility in adhering to grammar on FB and in notes. I was trying to explain that if my non-writer friends put a few extra exclamation marks after a sentence, I think nothing of it. I personally wouldn’t punctuate that way for the same reasons you cited, which are that I’m always trying to represent myself as a writer with good skills. I also try to be moderate about grammar in general. I’m always walking the tightrope. On the one hand, I think writers should master the rules of grammar. On the other hand, I have seen people nitpick over some silly, minor (and debatable) issues. Anyway, we’re definitely on the same page :)

  8. Tia Bach says:

    Love this post!!! (he, he) I can’t believe how many people overuse commas, quotation marks, and exclamation points. It can take a good story or article and distract me so much I no longer want to read it. That’s sad for the writer and reader.

    • I guess I’ve trained myself to ignore bad punctuation if a piece is really good. Actually, I don’t really ignore it, but I do try to overlook it. For example, if I’m reading a great post about my favorite TV show, I will overlook bad grammar because an entertainment blogger or TV fan may not be advanced in writing and grammar. Anyway, it’s always frustrating. I wish the grammar fairy would wave her wand and give the whole world good grammar ;)

  9. Diana Stevan says:

    Great post! I’m with you on this one. I find it irritating as well to read prose that is sloppy when it comes to punctuation. But having said that, I appreciated the liberties Cormac McCarthy took in writing The Road.

    • I agree Diana. I often listen to interviews with writers and I suspect forgoing quotation marks is a new trend in literary fiction. I’ve heard several authors (in interviews) discussion their decision to not use quotation marks for dialogue. I find it interesting and have been wondering if that’s the direction we’re all headed.

  10. Kelvin Kao says:

    I suspect there is some kind of punctuation inflation going on. If a lot of people are using !!!!! to express their excitement, using just one ! seems to downplay your excitement, in a way.

    I am also suspecting that some sales pages attempt to overload your brain with colors and excessive punctuations, so you make impulsive purchases.

    • In my experience, people have always done the exclamation mark dance (!!!). I think, however, it’s especially prevalent among the young because I know I used to get a lot of notes from my friends (when I was in junior high and high school) with these enthusiastic expressions. I too was guilty of abusing various punctuation marks in this manner. Heheh.

      For the life of me, I cannot understand how or why those sales pages are so effective. But apparently they are.

  11. Wen Scott says:

    &INTHEBADOLDDAYSOF”HAND-WRITTEN”ILLUMINATEDMANUSCRIPTSNOTONLYWASTHERENOPUNCTUATIONTHEREWASNOSPACINGBETWEENWORDSRESPECTPUNCTUATIONANDUSEWISELY!!!……!!!

  12. Michele says:

    Excellent advice. Now, would you please write something about those authors who think they need to misspell words in order to show us how ignorant one of their characters is? It slows down the reading. I will bypass whatever that character says in order not to have to decipher what it is he’s supposed to be saying. Telling us he has an accent is better than trying to write that accent into the dialogue.

    • Thanks for you comment Michele. I think that when dialect is done well, it works (for example, Huckleberry Finn). However, very few writers can pull it off. I just read a novel by an extremely successful and seasoned author in which dialect was loosely attempted but unfortunately failed on every level. When dialect is done well, I think it adds a lot to the prose. In any case, if I do write a post on dialect, I would emphasize its difficulty and recommend experimenting with it and testing it on beta readers. I would also recommend that young and new writers stay away from it altogether. I agree with you that it’s not necessary and I’d rather read a text with no dialect than one where it doesn’t work.

  13. Jess P says:

    I write mostly poetry, and it’s always an inner battle determining how to use the punctuation. Usually, I do what would be most grammatically correct since the poetic phrases don’t always fit into easily defined sentences.
    However, it is extremely frustrating to read prose or poetry where the grammar and punctuation get in the way. I have one friend who sometimes writes poems using “2” instead of “to” and “u” in place of “you.” I often ignore those poems. Good art can be ruined by getting lost in the mess of bad grammar.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I was once approached by a young poet who wanted my feedback. I thought her poems were beautiful except that they were in all caps. When I pointed out that the capital letters were distracting and interfering with the poetry, she argued with me, insisting that all caps was her style and trademark. Augh! It was such a shame.

  14. Twilight says:

    hi, thank you for an interesting post. Thanks too to those who replied. I too am a writer, and there is something I have a hard time with when I read a book. Many writers put and at the start of a sentence which I find distracting and annoying. Consequently I do not read much which is sad because it is relaxing. When I was at school we were taught that and at the start of a sentence is wrong. That it is a word that connects sentences, not begins them. This has stayed with me. What is your view on this practice?

    • I think it’s a bit strange that you don’t read books just because some writers start sentences with the word “and.” It’s a practice done mostly in informal writing. You won’t see it often in academic writing or journalism. Otherwise, it’s a fairly common practice, often used for emphasis. My view is that creative writers can and should break the rules if doing so strengthens their work, and if they are comfortable with it. I do it all the time. However, one should know the rule one is breaking and have a good reason for breaking it.

      Is it really wrong to start a sentence with the word and? Here is an interesting article on the subject:

      http://www.dailywritingtips.com/can-you-start-sentences-with-%E2%80%9Cand%E2%80%9D-and-%E2%80%9Cbut%E2%80%9D/

      Keep in mind, the English language is changing and evolving all the time. What was unacceptable a century ago enters common usage today and will be formally correct usage in a century from now. Also, there are times when one must break the rules or risk sounding archaic:

      Which store are you going to? <— technically incorrect but sounds natural
      To which store are you going? <– technically correct but sounds archaic and unnatural

      I think writers should learn the rules and then use their best judgment.

  15. Peter Minj says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Its such a wonderful post emphasizing the importance of grammar in English.I was awed after reading the posts on punctuation marks.I wonder how will i ever be sure of using them correctly in my writing.I really want to learn and improve on the grammar aspect of writing.There are so many rules,so many exceptions and so much to know.Seems impossible at times,but then its all important.

    • Sometimes I think it’s almost impossible to truly master grammar. There are many issues that grammar doe not address, and we have to leave those decisions up to our own personal judgement or better yet, to a style guide. On the other hand, it’s worthwhile to do our best to know the rules and apply them accordingly. If we can find enjoyment in learning grammar and punctuation, then it will be a pleasurable lifelong pursuit.

  16. BOTR says:

    Loved the part about the ampersands. There are posters on a couple message boards I go on whose posts I never read because they use “&” in every instance of the word “and”; one of those boards used to have mods that wouldn’t tolerate such things but the mods they have now don’t care.

    • Ampersands are okay on posters, text messages, tweets, marketing collateral. It’s when they appear in prose or formal writing that they become problematic. It sounds like the board you’re visiting uses them everywhere. I think that would grate on my nerves a bit, too.