More Irregular Qwerty Irregulars – Punctuation Part II.
“We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic and modulated; all… our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places.” … Lynne Truss
Forgive me as I play English teacher once more. It’s far from my favorite personae, but well, let’s just say, we are all creatures of many hats, and if the occasion fits….
Last week we discussed definitive sentence terminators and bold interior punctuation, both familiar and less so. And yet more dots and squiggles remain! So, onward and upward through the realm of quotation marks, apostrophes, dashes, and ellipses. Remember, these are nuts-and-bolts issues, and editors, agents, and publishers give short shrift to writers who don’t know their craft.
Anyone who has written dialogue or used a citation is intimate with double quotation marks (“ ”).
“Carter, stop chewing on my manuscript,” Simone chided the ginger tabby.
A simple enough sentence, with the closing punctuation of the dialogue coming inside the end quotation marks. This is true regardless of what that closing punctuation is:
“Carter, stop chewing on my manuscript!” Simone yelled at the marmalade cat.
“Carter, would you please stop chewing on my manuscript?” Simone begged her kitten.
Dialogue within dialogue takes single quotation marks (‘ ’) inside doubles. And, when dialogue extends over more than one paragraph, opening quotes are used at the start of each paragraph, but you only close when the speaker is finished.
“So there I was,” Carter told Sanji, “just flossing my teeth on a piece of her precious paper, and she yells at me, ‘Knock that off or no nip for you!’
“I stopped, of course.”
Quotation marks are also used around titles of short stories, poems, TV programs, and articles. They’re even acceptable for longer works like novels, plays, and films when, as on Facebook, italics or underlining are not available, or that is the requested style of the person you’re working for. As with dialogue, closing quotes go outside other punctuation.
We read Shakespeare’s canon from “All’s Well That Ends Well” to “Venus and Adonis,” even “The Winter’s Tale.”
Omitted letters and indication of ownership – aka contractions and possessives – are the hallmarks of the apostrophe (as in a ’, not a literary digression).
Can’t, they’re, you’ve, we’re; Schrodinger’s cat, child’s dream, women’s caucus, kiwi’s millipede. We all know this, right? But over eras of colloquial errors, the rules get muddied. In dates, for example, despite what you may have heard, it is 1930s not 1930’s (though it is the ‘30s). You also don’t use apostrophes when pluralizing names. The McDonald family down the lane are the McDonalds, not the McDonald’s (though it is crotchety Old McDonald’s farm).
Then you have names ending with s – James, Hughes, Hastings, Williams? Generally speaking, the rule is, sound them out.
In the Lost & Found, we discovered James’s portfolio and Hastings’ shillelagh.
Pronouns such as it, who, her, our, and your, never take an apostrophe when used as possessives, hence, hers, ours, yours, whose, and its. Contractions are a different matter. It’s = it is; who’s = who is. Its/it’s and their/they’re confusions are common oopses even the best of us make. If you stumble, don’t be hard on yourself, just be vigilant.
Finally, we come to the dread triad, parentheses, ellipses, and dashes. These are the rules:
Parentheses are used to delineate words and figures:
The baby dragon weighed in at thirty-five (35) kilograms right out of her egg.
And numbers, when used in a list:
You can distinguished a gryphon by (1) his aquiline anterior, (2) his leonine posterior, and (3) his territorial nature.
Then there is the ubiquitous parenthetical phrase. The parenthetical phrase is that extra you add to a sentence, the proverbial afterthought or colorful literary aside. Today, many writers use commas or dashes instead of parentheses to similar effect. Strict grammarians will tell you that parentheses assign secondary status to the words inside them, while dashes add emphasis, but, in the end, it is one of those rules easily broken by choice. I, for one, used to love parentheses but grew away from them over the years. What fell inside them felt more difficult to ignore, and dashes felt mores aesthetically pleasing. C’est la vie.
One note on parenthetical punctuation: only put a period inside the parentheses if there is a complete sentence enclosed therein.
From the sole of my foot, I pulled a spine (hedgehog, not tuna tree).
From the sole of my foot, I pulled a spine. (It was hawthorn, not hedgehog.)
As an editor, ellipses drive me nuts. Those three little dots are overused, misused, and irritating as hell. That said, there are legitimate reasons to use ellipses. They are used when words are omitted. This can be a literal omission, as in the case of cuts made to texts – for length only, never to tamper with meaning – which is essentially the Reader’s Digest rule:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning…he found himself transformed…into a gigantic vermin.
They can also indicate incomplete thoughts or when one trails off into silence, choosing to leave words unsaid in a distracted or wistful manner. This is the area where those three little dots can easily turn into punctuational hedging (see Editor’s Corner 101.23), used as filler when you’re not quite sure what you want to say. Ellipses hand the responsibility over to the reader and – voila! – you are off the hook. (Note: when at the end of a sentence, you use four dots, the ellipsis followed by a period.) Prime hedging is seen in the habitual, “The End….” Really? It’s either the end or it isn’t. Oh, I know, you left something out! “The end…until the zombie apocalypse,” perhaps?
In many – dare I say most – instances, dashes can replace ellipses; it often boils down to a matter of personal taste and style, so know what you intend, then use your discretion. There are also times when a dash absolutely should be use, but isn’t. This is especially true in dialogue, when you have cross-talk or abrupt interruptions. In those instances, the words are chopped out, not swallowed by choice. Not a wisp of wistfulness there!
Likewise, use dashes not ellipses when making segues, especially those which are a have an AD/HD feel to them:
“Oh, man, I am so behind my deadline – Did I tell you the neighbor’s corgi had puppies?
Remember, dashes move quickly, ellipses are more leisurely (all that space between the dots).
And now I must dash – have to check on a Lorca, see if she’s ready to drop her kittens.
Any questions, feel free to ask. And when in doubt, remember there’s always Strunk & White.
Next week something more fun, I promise.
Past Editor’s Corners can be found at the Editor’s Corner Archive.
Also, check out the Lorca Kitten Pool. Guess date of birth and number of kittens in the litter. The person closest wins a signed copy of one of my books, The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook; Dragons for Beginners; or a limited chapbook edition of my story, “Because the Pleasure-Dragon Whistles.” Dragons and kittens, what could be better!