A punctuation primer

Editing for manuscript mechanics involves examining your manuscript closely for minuscule details like these:

Punctuation is properly applied.

The most common punctuation errors I see have to do with commas, which is why I created the Comma Cheat Sheet.

Photo illustration © WavebreakmediaMicro • Fotolia.com
Photo illustration © WavebreakmediaMicro • Fotolia.com

Few people have trouble with periods. They go at the end of sentences. Period errors are usually ones of omission, such as when they’re missing from run-on sentences:

She worked hard all day, there was a lot to do. (Comma should be a period.)

I often see periods misplaced outside of quotation marks, which I can only attribute to writers reading British works. In American English, periods go inside quotation marks.

Most people know what to do with question marks, though I do sometimes see them used with statements that, although they contain adverbs or pronouns that sometimes form questions, they don’t always.

What do you think?

What I think doesn’t matter.

Exclamation points warrant a whole post of their own.

We discussed em dashes and ellipses in the dialog section. In fiction, outside of dialog, there’s not much use for ellipses, though they can indicate the thoughts of a viewpoint character trailing off into uncertainty.

Still, he wondered…

The em dash, however, can be used in narrative to show a break in thought of the viewpoint character:

She needed to get out of there before—nope, too late.

Semicolons are rarely used anymore. In fiction, they are really only useful for joining two independent clauses:

She worked hard all day; there was a lot to do.

Changing the comma in the run-on to a semicolon is just as grammatically correct as changing it to a period. To determine which you prefer, ask someone to read both versions aloud to you and see which sounds better. Fair warning: some editors don’t like semicolons and will replace them with periods. If you’re being traditionally published, don’t argue. If you’re hiring a copyeditor before self-publishing, discuss the matter before they start working. You may be using semicolons too much, in which case a level-headed copyeditor could help you find some middle ground. But you don’t want an overzealous copyeditor to take all of them out; that could change your voice.

Whole books have been written on the subject of punctuation, and contrary to its outsized popularity, that “zero tolerance guide to punctuation” is not the best. First, it’s British and not American, so there are style differences. Second, it is rife with errors—I mean, it even omits the hyphen in “zero-tolerance guide” on the cover. (It occurs to me that since the original British version of this book was published in the U.S. without adaptation, that may be the source of some writers’ confusion about placement of punctuation.)

If punctuation befuddles you (as it does many writers), I recommend Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors by Kathy Ide. It has a large section on punctuation that’s concise and accessible. And correct.


Disclosure of Material Connection: Kathy Ide is one of my mentors, and the Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

You may also like...

Popular Posts


  1. […] I’ve written before about punctuation, so I won’t repeat myself here. If you want to learn more about punctuation, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors is a great resource. The Copyeditor’s Handbook contains more on the subject than most writers need. If you really want to get into it, you can find Chicago on the reference shelf at your local library. Punctuation is covered in Chapter 6. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.