Writing is like cooking. You take a bunch of random things that aren’t terribly special by themselves, mix the right amounts together, and poof! You have a book. Or a cake.
In this metaphor, punctuation marks are spices. They aren’t the main ingredient, but if you leave them out, you can tell. They’re also easy to misuse.
Just like adding too much seasoning can ruin a meal, adding too much special punctuation can screw up a piece of writing. Punctuation marks are tools, not garnishes, and should be used accordingly.
So here are common punctuation marks, as compared to common cooking spices to illustrate their proper uses. Enjoy!
Commas, commas, commas
Commas are like salt. They are in everything. They are everywhere. It is impossible to write without commas. A lack of commas makes your writing feel heavy. This paragraph demonstrates that.
Like salt, commas are also very easy to overuse, and abusing them can make a project messy and gross. If you find that you have a sentence with four or more commas in it, you might want to consider chopping that sentence into two or finding a less roundabout way to make your point.
Periods are like pepper. Pepper is common, and pretty much everyone is aware of where it should go. Similarly, most people know what requires a period and what doesn’t. You don’t often see people confusing periods with dashes or apostrophes, just like most people wouldn’t put pepper on apple pie.
For the sake of thoroughness, however, let’s cover it. Periods belong at the end of a sentence, at the end of an abbreviation, and sometimes at the end of a fragment, if you’re using a fragment on purpose. Like this.
Question marks are like cinnamon. They’re not used every day, but they’re fairly common and everybody knows where to put them. As cinnamon goes in grain products and sweet things, question marks go at the end of questions. Question marks should not go at the end of sentences relating to questions, such as, “I wanted to ask you what time it is.” That is a declarative statement. If you really wanted to use a question mark, you could rephrase it as, “I wanted to ask you, what time is it?”
Exclamation points are like garlic. They’re powerful, but if you put them everywhere they’ll lose their effectiveness and overwhelm everything else. If you find yourself needing to use dozens of exclamation marks to make your point, your words themselves probably aren’t strong enough.
Semicolons are like red pepper; they’re a fun way to change up your sentence structure, but must be applied with care. A semicolon belongs between two independent clauses (complete sentences), and sometimes between items in a list. Semicolons can usually be replaced by a period without changing anything else. In lists, semicolons can typically be replaced by commas, though semicolons are preferable when the list items are complete sentences. (e.g., “There are three choices: I like semicolons; I like commas; I like question marks.”)
One other note about semicolons: the two sentences on either side of a semicolon should be related to each other. It makes little sense to say, “My brother is a dentist; I like to buy shoes.” It makes sense to say, “My brother is a dentist; he doesn’t buy candy.”
Colons are like cloves. They look like semicolons the way cloves look sort of like peppercorns, but they’re really quite different. Colons, like cloves, are useful and a good additive when used properly, but if you put them where they don’t belong, everyone leaves with a weird taste in their mouths.
Colons belong at the start of lists. Sometimes they belong before an explanation or elaboration of the preceding sentence (“The poster was a request for help: Lost dog! Reward offered.”), but usually a comma or semicolon will work better.
Ellipses are like curry powder. You would never put curry powder on something unless you were sure you wanted it to taste like curry. Likewise, you do not use an ellipsis unless it’s the only thing that will work.
Ellipses are not a good substitute for pauses. Your writing should be able to suggest that a speaker paused without an ellipsis. If you use an ellipsis…every single time…someone pauses…your ellipses lose all meaning and your readers will skip over them.
The proper use of an ellipsis is to indicate that a line of thought was broken off, or that a segment of a quote has been omitted. In very specific cases, you might use an ellipsis as a pause in a sentence…but think very hard before you do. Consider yourself obligated to earn every single ellipsis you put into your writing. They aren’t free; you have to justify your usage of them. If you find yourself consistently using too many ellipses, try limiting yourself to three per chapter. This will force you to ask yourself, “Do I really want to use one of my ellipses to mark this particular pause, or should I save it for later?” As a former ellipsis addict, I can testify that this method works very well.
For spacing, you can either have a space on both sides of the ellipsis, or no spacing around the ellipsis at all. Whichever you use, be consistent with it.
Apostrophes are like basil. They are delicious and pretty hard to misuse, and when you do misuse them, most people won’t notice. However, there are cases in which an apostrophe is incorrect.
Apostrophes are used to indicate contractions (wasn’t, don’t, can’t), posessives (Sally’s, Wal-Mart’s, cat’s), and to indicate more than one of a single letter (d’s, s’s, t’s). Apostrophes are not used in describing decades. It’s incorrect to say, “I grew up in the 1970’s.” It’s correct to say, “1970’s hairstyles were interesting.” In this sentence, the hairstyles belong to the year 1970. It is also appropriate to use an apostrophe in a contraction for a year, such as referring to “the year ’75.”
One notable exception to this usage is the difference between “it’s” and “its.” The former is a contraction for “it is,” while the latter is the possessive form of “it” and does not have an apostrophe. This is surprisingly difficult to remember, but my personal trick is to think of the contraction “it’s” as having cut out a letter from “it is.” Therefore, it needs an apostrophe to fill in the blank, whereas the possessive “its” hasn’t deleted anything and therefore is not entitled to extra punctuation.
Hyphens are like nutmeg and dashes are like paprika. They look similar, but have very different functions. Both spices are red and grainy, but paprika goes well with entrees while nutmeg, at least in the U.S., is primarily used in sweeter dishes.
Similarly, a dash looks like an elongated hyphen, but where hyphens are used to link words or syllables together (twenty-seven, pre-existing), dashes are used to offset phrases—like this—from the rest of the text. A hyphen provides a connection, while a dash provides a break. A dash can also be used in place of an ellipsis to indicate that someone was interrupted or that a train of thought was cut off. (There are several kinds of dashes, but the subject is a bit too messy to get into right now.) Dashes and hyphens are not interchangeable, but both are extremely useful when properly applied.