Yes, dear ones, just because school is out for summer vacation does not mean you are excused from minding your grammar! At the request of a very concerned Seeker (no, not Myra this time, although she is also quite disturbed by the general deterioration of proper grammar), I am calling a special remedial class on punctuation.
So take out pencil and paper and get ready for a pop quiz. And no peeking at your neighbor’s paper!
Choose the correct form of punctuation from the list below, then insert in the space designated by brackets in each of the examples that follow.
- . (period)
- ? (question mark)
- , (comma)
- ; (semicolon)
- ! (exclamation point)
- — (em dash)
- – (en dash)
- - (hyphen)
- : (colon)
- / (forward slash)
- . . . (ellipsis)
- “ “ (double quotation marks)
- ‘ ‘ (single quotation marks)
- Ruthy needed a change of pace[ ] she decided to bake more cookies.
- “Wait!” Audra shouted. “Don’t leave without[ ]“ But the car sped away.
- Sandra opted for an RV park[ ]pickleball vacation.
- Cara will be signing her books at nine forty[ ]five.
- Debby may try writing about a suspense character with a Jekyll[ ]Hyde personality.
- Mary examined the elements of her opening scene[ ] heroine, villain, rifle, gunshot.
- Tina asked if anyone would like a lemon from her backyard tree[ ]
- [ ]If you need help with your spreadsheet, just ask,[ ] Pam offered.
- “Don’t close the suitcase yet. I still have a few things to pack for ACFW[ ]” Janet told her husband.
- Missy is [ ] well, she’s a bit frazzled with everything going on this summer.
- “Sorry, Julie,” her editor stated, “but [ ]novella length[ ] means your story can’t be 100,000 words long.”
- Reading her revision letter, Glynna gasped. “No changes? Wow[ ]”
- Will Myra ever be able to read or write anything without Grammar Queen looking over her shoulder[ ]
Ahem! Obviously, number 13 is rhetorical.
All right, students, you may now check your papers against the answer key at the end of this post. We’re on the honor system, so I’m trusting you to grade yourselves fairly. Surely each of you passed my little quiz, but in the event that anyone requires further clarification, we shall now take a closer look at each of these punctuation marks.
1. The humble period. We should all be well versed in the use of periods to end a declarative sentence. Or even an incomplete sentence. Which fiction writers are prone to use.
2. The question mark. Does everyone know to place the question mark at the end of a direct question? I certainly hope so. The question mark should also be used within a sentence containing a direction question.
Should Audra stay or go? she wondered.
However, an indirect question requires a period, not a question mark.
I wonder if my students will comprehend this point.
Don’t bother asking why.
3. The comma. This teensy little punctuation mark, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, “indicates the smallest break in sentence structure. It denotes a slight pause.” When the comma is used to separate two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, the comma is inserted before the conjunction.
Mary wanted to go sightseeing, but Ruthy preferred to work on her novel.
Commas also separate items in a series. When a comma is placed before the “and” or “or” in a series, that comma is known as the Oxford comma, and its use is highly favored by both GQ and CMS to avoid ambiguity.
4. The semicolon. More than a comma, less than a period, the semicolon is most often found between two independent but related clauses not joined by a conjunction. The semicolon may also be used in a series when one or more of the series elements include commas, as in the following example:
Janet decided to wear her short, green blazer; long-sleeved, striped blouse; and gray slacks.
5. The exclamation point. Exceedingly popular in Seekerville and social media commentary, the exclamation point follows a strongly emphatic statement or outcry. In all other cases, use in moderation!!! The exclamation point may also take the place of a question mark when the question is actually more of an exclamation.
When will my grammar students ever learn!
6. The em dash. The em dash serves a variety of purposes. One common usage is to set off explanatory or amplifying words or phrases.
The workshop speakers—Seekers Missy, Julie, and Mary—will take questions after the presentation.
Fiction writers often use em dashes to indicate interrupted speech or an abrupt change of thought.
“But I thought—” Cara began.
Glynna said she couldn’t meet us for dinner—wait, I think she changed her mind again.
7. The en dash. Although we don’t see the en dash nearly as often as other forms of punctuation, this bit of punctuation—not as long as an em dash nor as short as a hyphen—serves a necessary purpose and should be used appropriately. In prose writing, it is found most often in compound adjectives where one of the elements is already a compound.
Myra’s Till We Meet Again series takes place post–World War I.
The en dash should also be used to take the place of “to” or “between” in phrases indicating time or location.
Ruthy’s book signing, 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m., will be held at the library.
BUT never, ever, ever use the en dash if time or place is preceded by “from” or “between”!!!! This is a crime against parallel construction and demands the use of several exclamation points for emphasis!!!!!
WRONG: The library is open between 9:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
WRONG: I shall be on vacation from September 3–15.
Although heaven knows after trying to explain all this, I shall certainly need a vacation!!!
8. The hyphen. Very simply, the hyphen connects the parts of a compound term. When a compound adjective precedes the noun it modifies, use hyphens.
a long-tailed dog
a yellow-beaked bird
a three-year-old child
the child is three years old (NO hyphens!)
When spelling out times, hyphenate as in these examples:
eight forty-five (hyphenate minutes only)
four fifteen (no hyphen)
9. The colon. The colon typically introduces sentence elements that illustrate or amplify the preceding phrase. When used within a sentence, do NOT capitalize the first word following the colon (unless a proper name). When used to introduce two or more sentences, capitalize the first word of each sentence as you would normally.
Mary had three choices: She could meet Ruthy at the airport. She could let Ruthy catch a cab. Or she could pretend she never got the message.
Use the colon after phrases such as “as follows” or “the following.”
Do NOT use the colon before a series introduced by a verb or a preposition.
WRONG: For lunch Pam had: a sandwich, carrot sticks, and a glass of sweet tea.
10. The forward slash. This one is fairly straightforward—ha ha!—and is used to signify alternatives.
11. The ellipsis. The two primary uses of the ellipsis are (1) to indicate omitted words from a quoted passage, and (2) at the end of a deliberately incomplete thought. The latter is what we see most commonly in fiction.
“I was thinking we should . . .” Audra began. “On the other hand, it’s probably not a good idea.”
12. Double quotation marks. In American usage, place double quotation marks around character dialogue and other quoted material. When referencing shorter works (magazine articles, poems, chapter titles, individual episodes of a TV series, etc.), enclose the title in double quotation marks. Longer works (book titles, movie titles, TV series titles, etc.) should be italicized.
Tina’s short story “Music of Love” appeared in a recent issue of Woman’s World.
13. Single quotation marks. When an element that would normally be enclosed by double quotation marks appears within already quoted material, use single quotation marks instead.
Julie asked, “Did Myra really say, ‘No, I absolutely will not go to the mall with you, Sandra’?”
In the above example, please note the placement of the question mark, which correctly punctuates Julie’s question rather than the statement attributed to Myra. In this case, a period should not be used to end Myra’s quoted words. Compare to the example below:
Sandra replied, “No, Julie, Myra’s exact words were, ‘Sorry, but I can’t go to the mall with you today.’”
In the above example, the period goes inside both sets of quotation marks.
Lest I overwhelm you with so much information that your dear little heads explode, today’s lesson includes only the briefest explanations of each of these forms of punctuation. If specific questions arise during the course of our discussion, I shall be happy to answer on a case-by-case basis (note correct hyphenation of compound modifier).
Now, who is brave enough to post your quiz results? Anyone? Participants in today’s class are eligible to be entered in a drawing for one of two giveaways. I am personally offering a copy of The Best Punctuation Book, Period: A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson. Myra is also generously contributing a copy of the Seekers’ recently released novella collection, Love Will Find a Way. Just mention in your comment if you would like to be entered in either or both drawings.
Hit the hiking trail as award-winning authors Cara Lynn James, Myra Johnson, and Sandra Leesmith whisk you away to three of America’s most beautiful outdoor settings: scenic northwest Connecticut, the rugged Big Bend Country of West Texas, and the expansive vistas of the Grand Canyon. Romance, faith, and adventure combine in these inspiring stories where love always finds a way!
Myra also threatened to lock away my entire collection of grammar reference books unless I provide all you dear, attentive students with her online links. So please, GO OUT RIGHT NOW AND BUY ALL OF MYRA’S NOVELS!!! And purchase extra copies for your family and friends!!!