Thursday, October 3, 2013

Self-Editing #6 - Clean Up Crew: Punctuation

Just a quick note before we continue the self-editing series: On Monday I'm revealing the cover of BREAKABLE! I'd love it if you could stop by, tweet or facebook a link to the post, or generally give it a shout out to whoever you know that loves YA. If you're a reviewer or blogger who'd like to get involved, it's not too late to sign up. Click this link and add your email to the appropriate box! (If you're not sure, you can read a preview of the first chapter here). And now, back to our previously scheduled viewing...
How embarrassed was I to find out I had bad grammar and punctuation?!

I never studied English after high school, so maybe I can blame that. Or maybe it's because I'm an American who grew up in New Zealand: I read books written in both American and British English (and yes, the spelling, grammar and some punctuation are different).

But I've been writing for business for over ten years. And I'm good at it. It's just that fiction has its own rules and I didn't know a lot of them. And after doing a little research I've discovered I'm not alone.

So... I've accumulated some information and quotes from other sources for you to double check against your usage (NOTE: These are all in the American standard. If you're writing in the Queen's English, please double check):


When a character says something, the words are enclosed in quotes with a period at the end:

“Hi. It’s good to see you.”

When you attribute the speech, the final sentence of the dialogue ends in a comma:

“Hi. It’s good to see you,” Carl said.

EXCEPT when the attribution isn’t direct:

“Hi. It’s good to see you.” Carl smiled and held out his hand.

(If you aren’t sure, the litmus test is: can the attribution stand alone as a sentence? If so, the speech should end in a period).

In dialogue, when a character’s name is used, there is always a comma preceding.

“What’s your problem, Frank?”


“I told you, Frank, I’m not going to do that.”

When a character’s dialogue extends beyond one paragraph, the first paragraph(s) are open ended. Only the final paragraph has end-quotes. 

     “Yadda yadda yadda. Blah, blah blah blah. Yadda, yadda. Yadda yadda yadda. Blah, blah blah blah. Yadda, yadda.
     “Blah blah blah blah, yadda. Yadda blah, yaddah. Blah blah blah blah, yadda. Yadda blah, yaddah. Blah blah blah blah, yadda. Yadda blah, yaddah.
     “Yadda blah, yadda yadda. Blah. Yaddah.”

In broken dialogue only capitalize a new quote after a period.

“Hey there,” said Carl, “it’s good to see you."


“Hey there,” said Carl. “I didn't expect to see you here.”


Its, your and their are possessive (i.e. owned or held by the person they refer to).

It’s, you’re and they’re are contractions (i.e. two words condensed into one: It is, you are and they are)

Titles like ‘Dad’ and ‘Uncle’ are capitalized when used in place of the name, not when speaking in the possessive:

CORRECT: Dad told me he never kissed anyone before Mom.


CORRECT: My dad told me he never kissed anyone before my mom.

(Again the litmus test is, could "Dad" or "Mom" or "Grandpa" be replaced with a name without changing anything else? If so, it should be capitalized).


The correct use of a dash in manuscript format for submission to traditional publishing is to use the dash twice.

Carl took me to his car -- the ‘little’ SUV, not the truck -- and opened the door for me.

(NOTE: MS Word and others not specifically designed for writers may automatically condense the dashes into one long dash - called an "em-dash" or empirical dash. Try changing your 'autocorrect' settings.)

The semicolon is a continuation: It must be followed by a complete sentence. It is NOT for use in a side thought – something that breaks a sentence – where you should use an em-dash.

These are some of the most common punctuation issues I've had or come across. For more extensive lists and detailed analysis, check out Natalie Fischer's Cheat-Sheet post.

Your Turn: Are there particular grammar, punctuation or spelling questions you have? Note them in the comments and I'll see what I can do. (Or, if you have tips on common problems, please share!)


  1. Commas! Commas are my Lex Luther. I know the difference between "Let's eat, Grandpa!" and "Let's eat Grandpa!" but for lists, the Oxford comma, etc. I'm always second-guessing myself. Help me, Aimee Wan-Kenobi, you're my only hope...

  2. Hm. Can I have some clarification on the dash?

    Is 'manuscript format' different than, um, anything else?

    I use Word and create the em dash by hitting Ctl, Alt, and the numeral dash.
    I make the en dash by hitting Ctl and the numeral dash.

    *scratching head*

    So I shouldn't use the em dash in my MS?

  3. Ooooh, thanks for that note on the dash! I'm going to go look at my settings...

  4. I am like you in the way that I never really studied grammer after high school. I think that I'm better with puncuation than I am with grammer rules.

  5. Huntress - The double-dash is for em dash. And yes, manuscript format is different to most other contemporary writing (for business, etc).

    If you want more detailed explanations about the differences between en dash and em dash, check out this post:

    AND your Chicago Manual of Style (especially if you're having trouble sleeping...)

  6. I shared this on my Editing Services Facebook page. These are easy tips but are overlooked too often. Thanks.

  7. I know what you mean. I come from South Africa and went to both British and American schools. Can lead to some very interesting spelling and grammar mix ups. :-)

  8. Phew ... this was easier for me than the last one :) Thanks as usual Aimee

  9. Yes ... thank you Aimee :)

    I'm very happy with No. 6 ... I passed :)

  10. So glad I found this ! Punctuation seems to be my weakness - I am a good storyteller, but punctuation and grammar errors make me a mediocre writer.

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