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[Writing] Punctuation

category: Writing | course: Writing with Style | difficulty:

Punctuation is the key to making your story easily understandable. To control pace and space. It can be used to create a certain desired effect, but most often it is only there to serve your story. It should be invisible, which only means that the user should not actively notice it’s there. In its most basic form, the only thing punctuation is good for, is splitting a bunch of words into sentences, and then subdividing them into sub clauses or dialogue. Using it well makes you look professional and makes the most out of your story, not taking care of it almost immediately results in a messy story and rejection.

I’ll walk you through every character that belongs to punctuation, and talk about some special characters and where they (don’t) belong.


Periods were invented for one purpose: to mark the end of a sentence. Don’t use it for anything else.

Any word next to a period (either the end of the previous sentence, or the start of a new one) is emphasized. The period acts as a small period where the reader can think and breathe for a bit, and whatever is around it will have some time to resonate. Therefore, place strong and important words at the beginning or end of sentences.

Example: In order to emphasize, one should place a word at the end.

Question and Exclamation Marks

Never use multiple after each other. ‘How did you do that????’ doesn’t help make clear that the person in question is very, very surprised – it just makes the writing look childish.

Exclamation marks should be used sparingly, for it is a lazy way of making a sentence more intense.

Question marks of course should be used for actual questions, but they can also be used to shorten sentences:

‘Why would he do that? she kept thinking’ is clearer than ‘She kept thinking why he would do that


The comma is the most natural way to create order in a sentence. It divides parts of a difficult structure without interrupting the flow of the text.

There’s some debate about how often a comma should be used, but these are the general rules:

  • To set off introductory elements. It can be omitted though if this introductory element is short.
    • Falling down the tower, he thought about his life.
  • To set off parenthetical elements: sub clauses that can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.
    • The janitor, who never learned how to drive a car, couldn’t find his keys.
  • To connect two independent clauses.
    • He had never thought about it, and he wasn’t going to do so this time.
  • To separate elements in a series or list.
    • He dropped the book, fled out of the building, and ran to his house.

Quotation Marks

Used for quotes, dialogue and the necessary apostrophes. In all cases, a single quote ( blabla ) looks more neat and is all you need. You can draw the distinction between quotes and dialogue by using double quotes for one of them, but apostrophes should always be single quotes.

Parentheses (and Brackets and Braces)

First of all, brackets and braces should never be used in writing. They are one of the fundamental characters in computer programming and some mathematics, and you should leave them to those tasks.

Parentheses on the other hand, are quite a popular tool for the hobbyist writer, mostly to add some small comment or remark to a sentence. While that is exactly what you should use a parenthesis for, it’s recommended not to use them too often.

Parentheses are a vertical (slightly curved) line, which means it heavily interrupts the reading flow. The user bumps into a wall, and has to change his mind-set to: oh, this belongs to the sentence, but isn’t important enough to be put there without parentheses.

If you add something, check if it really needs to be there. If it has a function and adds necessary value to your sentence, put it there without the parentheses. If you find out you don’t actually need to add that small bit of information, omit it entirely and move on.

Dashes and Hyphens

There’s a difference. Hyphens are used to join two words into one, or to signal the user that a word is broken off and will continue on the next line.

Dashes are used to add a sub clause, comment or elaboration to the sentence. They are also often applied to add a punch line at the end of a sentence. Usually, you can replace them with commas, semicolons or just starting a new sentence. It’s up to you which method you choose, but dashes are best for short comments.

He decided not to do it – he was after all only a child.

The man looked heartbroken – to me, anyways – and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.


A colon announces a word, phrase or clause to come. It is not possible to put anything after that, which means they generally come early in a sentence, and are uncommon in (extremely) long sentences.

The wise man told me three things: to eat well, exercise and be happy.

As you can see, it works well for these kind of shorter, to-the-point sentences.


The semicolon a kind of compromise between the comma and the colon. Its advantage over the colon is that it can be used multiple times in a sentence if necessary, and it interrupts the text flow less. The disadvantage is that it really only has one actual purpose: to connect two independent clauses, which are related but could be a sentence of their own. It can be seen as a period replacement in most cases.

He said he’d be here at 8 o’clock. With beer and without his girlfriend.

               could be changed to

He said he’d be here at 8 o’clock; with beer and without his girlfriend.

However, the next line can’t use a semicolon:

He said he’d be here at 8 o’clock. I decided to bake pancakes.

Multiple Dots, Ampersands and Abbreviations

Generally speaking, don’t. Ampersands have only one use: in titles, headlines and brand names that need to be short. The same is true for abbreviations – if you have the room to write something in full, do it.

Multiple dots are usually used to signify a pause or sudden stop. I recommend replacing them with dashes or changing the sentence structure. If you for whatever reason can’t do that, use an ellipsis instead. (See the Typography course on that, as this is more of a typography issue.)

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