Grammar Answers Round #2

Hello again, everybody. Lots of punctuation questions this time. My answers address punctuation in fiction, which is a little more flexible and not quite as rigid as scholarly writing or journalism.

Punctuation is a tool that some writers use to surprising advantage in unorthodox ways.

There are two schools of thought on punctuation: ‘closed’ and ‘open’. Closed punctuation (loosely defined) refers to using all punctuation that could or might be used—all of it—every comma, semicolon or colon. Open punctuation (also loosely defined) refers to minimal punctuation only to provide clarification, prevent misinterpretation or aid in the pacing of fiction (commas, the rare semicolon, an extremely rare colon).

Closed punctuation is most common in the United States. Canada and the U.K. lean toward the open end of the spectrum. That’s a very general statement, however, and individual publishing houses will have their own house style for punctuation.

Now for answers to the questions in the order they appear on the blog.

Anonymous asked: “I’d like to know what you think about semicolons in dialogue.”

I’m really glad you qualified that with the word ‘think’, because semicolons in dialogue are a stylistic choice. Whether or not they appear in dialogue is the choice of both the writer and his or her editor. What I ‘think’ is that they don’t work well in dialogue, and here’s why:

Punctuation in dialogue is used to shape the cadence of the speech. It provides pauses, emphatic endings, flourishes, questions, and helps the writer convey the speech pattern of the character. Readers implicitly know how to shape the sound of a line of dialogue that ends in a period. There is a finality. A comma lends a slight pause, an intake of breath. Ellipses help us to hear a voice trailing off. An em dash is a sudden cessation of speech. An exclamation mark shouts. A question mark lilts the text. What is the sound of a semicolon?

The use of semicolons in dialogue can make the reader aware of the text, instead of listening to the ‘sound’ you are writing. I advise writers to avoid them entirely in dialogue and keep the reader within the cadence of the speech pattern. Not all editors or publishers agree. So, the choice is yours. I don’t know if that helped or not, but it’s my opinion that your ‘crit’ partners have a point.

familyonbikes asked: “I’m wondering how in the heck to use the three dots (I have no idea what that’s called)…”

The ellipsis¬¬ (plural: ellipses) is used to convey a trailing off of sound or, when used while quoting other material, to indicate that more unquoted material precedes or follows.

Some examples of trailing off or absence of sound or dialogue:

• “Rowan, what are you thinking?”
• “I just can’t seem to concentrate. . . ”

• “Your answer, Maestro?”
• “. . .”

Quoted material:

• “To be or not to be. That is the . . .”
• “. . . or not to be. That is the question.”

There are a few ways to punctuate the ellipsis and your publisher will choose the one they use in-house. I have three style guides beside me as I write this, and each one recommends a different way to construct and space ellipses. I’ll give you all three and you choose. The point here is to be consistent. It doesn’t matter which style you use, but always use the same one. That way, if your publisher decides to change the ellipses to suit the house style guide, they can all be changed at once.

First method (I use this one for internet writing as it shows up more clearly on the screen): a space before, between and after three periods. Like this . . . see how clear this looks on the screen?

Second method: no space before, spaces between three periods and no space after. Like this. . .but it can be hard to read on a computer screen.

Third method: space before, no spaces between three periods and a space after.
Like this … a little easier to read.

I wouldn’t recommend using ellipses after etc. in a list. Et cetera means “and other things”. The ellipses are redundant in that case.

You don’t need to capitalize the next phrase after an ellipsis unless it starts a new sentence. If you are only indicating a trailing off pause, then pick one of the three styles above and just continue without a capital. They can be placed anywhere in a sentence.

Punctuation with ellipses very much relies on context, so I can’t give you much more than that on punctuating around them. If used in dialogue, there is no closing punctuation. “I just can’t seem to . . . ”

colbymarshall asked: “…if you have dialogue that breaks with a tag in the middle separated by commas…does the second bit of dialogue begin with a capital letter?”

No, only if it is a new sentence or you’re using something like your example with a personal pronoun such as I. Example: “Really,” she said, “that’s ridiculous.”

Anonymous asked: “Can you go over its/it’s?”

Sure. It’s is a contraction of ‘it is’. Its is a possessive. An easy way to check for these when you’re reading through your work is to substitute ‘it is’ and see if that makes sense. If it does, then use it’s. If it doesn’t, use its. Examples:

“It’s raining out. My car will have its new wax job ruined.”

Lame example, but sound them out and you’ll see the difference.

Angela asked/screamed: “I always get confused in situations where a person is quoting another person . . . ”

The most common usage in North American is punctuation inside the quoted text which ends with three quotation marks.

“ . . . ‘Sure, parents can come too.’”

If I came across this in a manuscript I was editing, I’d recommend rewriting to avoid ending the quote at the end of dialogue. That doesn’t change the way it should be done if it has to be done, but if you can avoid that particular configuration in fiction, try to do so.

Angela also asked why there are so many style guides. Good question. Most style guides are written for particular publishing areas. The Chicago Manual of Style addresses scholarly books and journals. The Canadian Style addresses Government of Canada publications. There are style guides for newspapers, professional societies, scientific publications, medical publications. Most do not address fiction, and they often conflict with each other. They can be good sources of information but they really exist as tools for publishers and editors to provide consistency in published manuscripts. A good dictionary and a thesaurus are the writer’s best guides.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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Jacquie Biggar
6 years ago

You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve been looking for someone to clarify these issues for me in language I actually grasp. THANK YOU 🙂

Mary Witzl
12 years ago

How useful! I like what you wrote about semicolons in speech. My gut feeling is that they make the speech sound very posh. This is fine if the person is actually delivering a speech. Not so great if it’s a couple of people yakking away to each other.

12 years ago

Thanks for the very complete answers, Grammar Guru!

12 years ago

And now I am immediately thinking of that paragraph of dialogue full of semi-colons in my MS…

*heart attack*


This was great! A hat tip to the Grammar Guru!

12 years ago

THANK YOU for clarifying the ellipsis stuff – I really didn’t know how to do the spacing. I appreciate that!

Catherine J Gardner
12 years ago

Ooh, intersting post.