Editing Punctuation in Novels: Commas, Semi-colons, Colons, Apostrophes and Dashes


Most writers know about when to use a period, a question mark, and exclamation point. Be sure that every sentence has one of those three at the end.  Back on April 29ths post, we went over how to punctuate dialogue. I am not going to go over that again here, but you should probably review that now as well. In addition, go through and make sure you didn’t miss any of your quotation marks. Like the previous forms of punctuation, commas, semi-colons, colons, apostrophes, and dashes indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought. Experienced writers know that these marks are not interchangeable.

Once you’re sure that every sentence ends properly and every piece of dialogue is properly punctuated, let’s move onto commas.

Commas

Use a comma after an expression

Of course, you may use my pen.

Add a comma when a participle phrase is used

Carefully watching what she was doing, she poured the liquid into the cylinder.

Include a comma when an adverb clause is used

After we go to town, we need to put away the groceries.

Use a comma to separate parts of a date

Her birthday was Thursday, June 27, 2002.

Use a comma when two complete sentences are combined. (Remember to use a conjunction so you don’t end up with a run-on sentence.

He went to see his mother, and she waited in the car.

Use a comma when setting off quoted words

“She seemed embarrassed,” he said.

Semi-Colons

In most modern fiction, semi-colons should be edited out.

Colons

Use a colon to introduce an item or a series of items. Do not capitalize the first item after the colon (unless it’s a proper noun)

A capital letter generally does not introduce a word, phrase, or incomplete sentence following a colon.

Avoid using a colon before a list if it directly follows a verb or preposition that would ordinarily need no punctuation in that sentence.

When listing items one by one, one per line, following a colon, capitalization and ending punctuation are optional when using single words or phrases preceded by letters, numbers, or bullet points. If each point is a complete sentence, capitalize the first word and end the sentence with appropriate ending punctuation. Otherwise, there are no hard and fast rules, except be consistent.

A colon instead of a semicolon may be used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence. (Not recommended in modern fiction either. Instead, separate the sentences with a period or a comma and a conjunction)

Capitalize the first word of a complete or full-sentence quotation that follows a colon.

Capitalize the first word after a colon if the information following the colon requires two or more complete sentences.

If a quotation contains two or more sentences, many writers and editors introduce it with a colon rather than a comma.

For extended quotations introduced by a colon, some style manuals say to indent one-half inch on both the left and right margins; others say to indent only on the left margin. Quotation marks are not used.

Apostrophes

The apostrophe has two main jobs in English: to mark contractions and to indicate possession.

Never use an apostrophe to designate plurals.

Use apostrophes to form contractions, where two or more words are combined to form one, with letters omitted. Words most frequently affected by contractions are verbs and pronouns. For example, in the contractions “I’m” the apostrophe replaced the a in I am. The same goes for the word doesn’t where the apostrophe replaces the o in not like don’t in place of do not. The apostrophe is placed where the letters are removed.

Use an apostrophe plus -s to show the possessive form of a singular noun, even if that singular noun already ends in -s.

Some style guides (including the “Associated Press Stylebook” but not “The Chicago Manual of Style”) recommend using only an apostrophe after singular proper names ending in -s

To form the possessive of a plural noun that already ends in -s, simply add an apostrophe.

When two or more nouns possess the same thing, add an apostrophe plus -s to the last noun listed.

Don’t Use an Apostrophe With Possessive Pronouns including its, yours, hers his, ours, and theirs.

Add an apostrophe plus -s to form the possessive of some indefinite pronouns including anyone’s, somebody’s and one’s.

Dashes

Words and phrases between dashes are not generally part of the subject.

Dashes replace otherwise mandatory punctuation, such as the commas after Iowa and 2013 in the following examples:

Without dash: The man from Ames, Iowa, arrived.

With dash: The man—he was from Ames, Iowa—arrived.

Without dash: The May 1, 2013, edition of the Ames Sentinel arrived in June.

With dash: The Ames Sentinel—dated May 1, 2013—arrived in June.

Some writers and publishers prefer spaces around dashes.

Example: Joe — and his trusty mutt — was always welcome.

Be sure to include how you handle these forms of punctuation in your own personal style guide and be sure to be consistent in how you apply them in your novel.

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2 comments
  1. Billybuc said:

    The drill sergeant nuns I had spent a good part of eight years pounding this stuff into my head. Some stuck, some didn’t, so this refresher is helpful.

    • 1authorcygnetbrown said:

      Yes, definitely a refresher

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