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 with 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 occur where there is a natural pause, but they should not be used to tell the reader where to pause.
Here’s an example of telling readers where to pause, using commas:
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.
Writers who misuse 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. These are called scare quotes, and their usage is almost always derogatory and sarcastic. Use scare quotes 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 professional quality. It’s one thing when my friend sends a text to tell me that her kid just said Mama!!! It’s another thing entirely when a character in a novel is really, very, extremely 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’s 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, in text messages, 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 signage. It’s not a tweet. The ampersand is not a word; it’s a symbol, and we are not writing in hieroglyphics. We write in words and sentences. I don’t have anything personal against the ampersand. It looks nice on signage and it comes in handy on Twitter and in text messages. 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.
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 poet.
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 experiment 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 — or (worse) — you couldn’t be bothered to learn how to punctuate sentences correctly.
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?
Rein in those punctuation marks and keep writing!
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.
Damned good post!!! Well done. I think you’ve explained yourself very clearly – and that’s often not the case. So, thank you……….
Very funny! Thank you.
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.
That’s wonderful, Bonnie, and it’s exactly why I keep this blog going. None of us are alone in this crazy writing journey. Thank you.
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!
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.
Well, I’m not a grammar guru. I’m just a writer who likes to study grammar and occasionally write about it. While I always research my grammar posts, I definitely do not (by any means) consider myself an expert. Having said that, I would recommend starting with The Elements of Style. It’s more of a style guide than a grammar reference, but it’s the best place to begin, in my not-so-humble opinion.
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.
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!)
Hi Jen. Thanks for sharing this post on Facebook. I appreciate that!
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.
That’s shocking, Nicole. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was teaching English and we were told not to teach grammar and spelling as lessons, but to only do it in corrections of the pupil’s work.
Also, years later, I had to tell a boy that using textspeak in his report of a Science experiment was not acceptable. (This was a piece of coursework that had to go to the examiner.) I was teaching science at that time. Science was my main subject and English one of my subsidiaries.
Also, people seem to eschew capital letters these days. So often I see the name of our planet without a capital E. Talking about the soil as earth, fair enough, but referencing Planet Earth without capitals, definitely not. (And I saw on the scrolling bit on TV Brazil written without a capital.)
It goes on and on.
I can only think it’s to do with the teaching in schools. I learned about these things there and have never forgotten what they taught me. Do they teach sentence analysis? Do youngsters even know what a clause is (let alone a specific kind of clause)? And why do so many of them hold a pen in a way that makes it more difficult to control it with accuracy?
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 does 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.
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, and 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.
A serious pet peeve of mine. And another thing that I detest is when writers use question marks when there should be a period or an exclamation point. What is that all about?
Actually, there is a construct when it’s acceptable or even correct to use a period at the end of a question. If I remember correctly, it’s when the question is strictly rhetorical and not inviting an answer.