Punctuation is a challenge for a lot of writers. Commas can be particularly confusing because they have so many different purposes.
Semicolons are tough, too, and many writers just avoid them. The same goes for em dashes and ellipses. Three dots? Four dots? When, why, where?
Sure, you can use a grammar and punctuation checker in your word processing application or a program you’ve purchased. But you can’t count on them.
Why is punctuation so important for writers?
Punctuation determines the sound and tone of your writing—your voice. It instructs readers to pause or stop or keep on going. Plus, it speeds up their reading and slows it down. It shows emotion or lack of emotion, explanations, asides, time, and space.
If your writing has no punctuation other than, say, a period/full stop at the end, what would it sound like to a reader’s internal ear? What meaning would it lose?
Good punctuation skills—knowing the rules—also means you’ll know how to break the rules effectively.
When you know the rules of punctuation, you’ll know how to break those rules effectively.
Here are eight articles and quizzes on punctuation for writers.
They’re all from the Simple Writing archives, and each post focuses mainly on internal punctuation including commas, semi-colons, em dashes, and ellipses. Ellipses can, of course, occur at the end of a sentence.
End punctuation (periods/full stops, question marks, exclamation points) isn’t a problem for most writers, so it’s not included here. Well, some writers do have a habit of overusing exclamation points or using them inappropriately! Even when nothing is funny!
A sentence. Easy peasy, or so you might think. But when was the last time you thought about sentences? When have you wondered what, exactly, a sentence is?
“It’s a complete thought,” you might say, confidence oozing from your pores. Some of you cross your arms over your chest, roll your eyes, or even quit reading.
But wait. Stop. Do you really know what a sentence is? Read more…
Did you take the Simple Writing comma quiz? If not, you might want to give it a whirl before reading on.
As of today (November 22, 2019), the average score for 9,554 readers who tried their luck—or exercised their knowledge—is 60%. Updated June 22, 2023: Of 13,114 quiz takers, 7898 scored less than 60% and 1308 scored less than 70%. That means almost 72% need to brush up!
However, since the quiz has 20 questions, a score of 60% means 12 correct and 8 incorrect. And that means a lot of people know their commas pretty well. Congrats!
But it also means plenty just aren’t sure. And what do clumsy commas look like in a blog post or any other kind of writing?
Not too bad, writers. But not so good, either. Read more…
If commas confuse you, you’re not alone.
Like many writers, you might play a guessing game: I’m pretty sure that’s right, you might think, as you pop a comma somewhere in a sentence.
Or echoes of English teachers ring in your ears: Use a comma where you naturally pause, whispers Mrs.O’Leary or Mr. Radnor.
But your pause and your reader’s pause don’t always match up. And words strung together or separated randomly can cause reader confusion and clicks of the back button.
No guessing is required to use a comma correctly; you just have to learn a few rules. Read more…
A lot of writers say they’re guided by instinct when it comes to commas. Or they use the “rule” that says a comma goes where we naturally pause.
But what if your “instincts” are a bit off the mark? Or what if a reader doesn’t pause where you pause?
A big mistake that many writers make is called a split compound predicate. Read more…
Do you use semicolons? Do you know how?
Good writers often avoid them rather than make a mistake. Some even think semicolons are “old school” or too formal to use in their writing, while others fling ‘em around like wet noodles—some of ‘em stick, some don’t.
But it’s not that hard to get the hang of semicolons. And although you should guard against overuse, semicolons give you opportunities for expression and variety that you’ll want to take advantage of.
And if you’re a creative writer, knowing how to use them is an absolute must. Why not add something new to your writing toolbox? Read more
If you’re like a lot of writers—and I suspect you are—you might not be sure how to use ellipsis points, also known as suspension points or simply ellipses.
They’re the “three dots” that mean … well, lots of things.
Even the spelling and meaning can be confusing. Read more… (Oh, there’s one now.)
Do you use em dashes? Do you know what an em dash is? If you do, you’re in good company. Lots of writers use em dashes—a lot. I definitely do—sometimes more than I should.
And since too many em dashes detract from effectiveness—plus look sloppy and unprofessional—if I have more than one on a page (about every 250 words or so), I decide which are truly useful—and which can be ditched.
Stop! Take a look at the opening paragraphs again. Now there’s a case of em dash overload. And the parentheses don’t help matters either. Do you see what I mean? Read more…
Quizzes are a great way to learn. The best part is discovering what you know and what you don’t know. Plus, in this case, you’re testing your comma skills, which are super important for any writer.
And with an informal quiz like this one, there’s no performance pressure—you’re not in school, people—so you can relax and take your time. You can even look something up if you want to.
This quiz is all about commas used with “non-essential parenthetical elements.”
That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Read more…
What type of punctuation is your Achilles heel? Not sure? Have a question? Share in the comments.