Writing Wednesdays: Some basic punctuation rules you should know

Some people struggle with knowing how to use punctuation properly when writing, so this post covers a few basic rules.

Carrying on from last week’s post about some basic grammar rules, I wanted to talk about some basic rules when it comes to punctuation. This is also something I’m asked about a lot. It’s also something I see lacking in some stories I read online.

So you know when you read a story, and a character starts to talk, you know they’re talking because their dialogue is in quotation/speech marks? Or how when a sentence ends, it ends with a full stop? (Okay, that one didn’t, but it was a question, in my defence.) 

You wouldn’t believe how many stories I see online neglecting to use those things. It makes them crazy difficult to read. Even if the story has a fantastic plot, I just can’t read it. It’s too hard to read and too difficult to follow what’s going on.

To start off, I’ve put together this handy infographic to demonstrate different types of punctuation, so you guys all know what I’m talking about.

Find out more about how to use different types of punctuation in this post.

Probably, you already knew what all (if not most) of those things were called, but I just wanted to be totally clear on it before I get into it.

Sentences start with a capital letter. Also, you need to capitalise someone’s name, or a specific place, or the proper name of a noun. (For instance, toothpaste doesn’t need to be capitalised, but Colgate does. ‘The city’ doesn’t need to be capitalised, but London does.)

Sentences also have to end, and you need some kind of punctuation to end them. Typically, that’s a full stop, but it also includes exclamation and question marks, ellipses, and dashes.

Okay, so. Full stops. Also called ‘periods’ (but I think that’s mostly an American thing?)

A full-stop/period ends your sentence. It signals that it’s done. If you’re reading out loud, when you come to a full stop it’s kind of like a pause. It tells your reader that that one thing is done. We all speak in sentences, and I know that when we text/message, we don’t always use them, but when writing a book, they’re a necessity. Otherwise you could end up with a really long sentence that’s actually about five sentences and you kind of lost track of what’s going on.

Commas, similarly, are a kind of pause. There’s a whole bunch of rules for commas (and I know I was taught at some point that you should never use the word ‘and’ or ‘but’ after a comma, but I tend to ignore that one a lot, as you can see). Basically, they’re just there to signal a pause in the sentence, or if you’re doing something like listing things (eg. She was lovely, bright, beautiful).

Brackets, or parentheses, are typically the soft, round ones, but you’ll also see square ones on your keyboard. They’re not used so much in books, though, so don’t worry too much about them. You can put something in brackets if it’s a bit of a side note, like I’ve been doing, to extend a thought within the sentence. I’m not explaining it very well (I know) but I tried to use a bunch in this post so you can kind of see where they can be used.

Exclamation marks and question marks are a way to end a sentence, and they signal the tone. Someone might exclaim if they are excited! Or they could ask a question, rhetorical or not, you know? (If someone’s asking a question, you should end the sentence with a question mark. Pretty much always.)

Speech marks (also called quotation marks) can be written as singular or double, like in the infographic. Personally, I prefer to write with double. You should use them when someone starts to speak, and then again at the end of that piece of speech. USE THEM. (It makes it way less confusing for your readers, believe me.)

Apostrophes are used to signal when something belongs to something/someone. For instance, the boots belonging to Katie would be ‘Katie’s boots’. A flat-out plural does not need an apostrophe. If you have three horses, it’s just ‘horses’. No apostrophe. If you’re talking about the tail of one horse, it’s ‘the horse’s tail’. If you’re talking about the tails of three horses, it’s ‘the horses’ tails.’ In that last case, the apostrophe goes after the plural noun. (If in doubt, Google, and check it out in more detail.) Apostrophes are also used in contractions (which I talked about last week), like don’t, can’t, etc.

An ellipsis is when you have three dots together. You can use them to build suspense, or if someone trails off…

A hyphen connects two words together, like part-time. A dash, which is basically the same thing as a hyphen, is used to connect two bits of sentence – like this. You can use dashes as a kind of parentheses to substitute brackets, and if someone is talking and gets cut off mid-sentence.

A semicolon and colon can be used in the middle of a sentence. A colon is usually used to separate a sentence from a list, or when the first sentence explains the second so instead of a full stop you can join the two using a colon, or to introduce a quote. A semicolon, however, can be used more like a comma. I always used to think of semicolons as when you could use either a comma or a full-stop, so you use both.

I think that’s pretty much all of the main points covered when it comes to punctuation! I hope it helped, but if I’ve missed anything, please just send me a message and let me know.

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