Punctuation Police

Before I dig into punctuation, I wanted to let readers of the blog know that I finally finished the first draft of my novel yesterday. The well is complete and is filling with water now. I expected there to be some euphoria or incredible lightness of being. I was happy, don’t get me wrong, but there were no fireworks. Maybe they’ll come in time. It’ll be a while before I dig into the (cripplingly massive) edits.  Until then, short stories and outlining the next novel. Now, on with our previously scheduled post.

Never in life did I imagine myself writing a post about punctuation. The more I researched the topic, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. You can skip this one if you’re solid on commas, semicolons, and the differences between em and en dashes.

If you’re like me, standing on very shaky comma ground, you mind find some of this interesting. This effort is primarily a learning for me. If I write my research down, I’m much more likely to remember it. I will be focusing on punctuation in fiction but much of what you’ll find here is applicable across professional and non-fiction work. Any errors I make through misunderstanding are mine and not the authors and editors of my reference material.

First, acknowledgments. The Chicago Manual of Style is the perennial reference when it comes to writing words. We should both have a copy of this on our desk as a reference. The other book I’m leaning heavily on is Writing Well in the 21st Century–The Five Essentials by Linda Spencer. Spencer’s book is like an executive summary of the Manual of Style with the addition of trends for bloggers and modern business writing. It’s given me a tremendous boost on the journey to understanding the rules.

Red Pill Blue Pill

Did you know you have to make a punctuation choice when you start a new piece? I sure as hell didn’t. I bet you a dollar that many of the folks in my critique groups don’t know either.

Your choices are open or close (klōs) punctuation.  This choice will govern how your internal punctuation (commas, semicolons, parenthesis, etc.) will work.

If you choose open, you must use as little internal punctuation as possible. Close is the opposite. Punctuation is, unfortunately, not like pick-a-mix. Who knew? Linda Spence and millions of other writers apparently, but not me.

This choice we have implies that there is optional internal punctuation out there.  There is, and many of you are already familiar with at least one type—the Oxford comma.


Commas are boogers. This has been one of the most perplexing critiques I’ve received. Some folks scratch them and some add them and I’ve never been quite sure why.  I honestly don’t think many of them know why either. Here are the nuts and bolts.

Two absolutes.

  1. Never use breath commas. Just because you pause when reading aloud does not mean you add a comma. I know! I thought so too. Don’t get mad at me. My sixth-grade teacher said the same thing but she was wrong.
  2. Never put a comma between the subject and verb in a sentence.  I wasn’t sure if I was doing this, so I wrote a few sentences to investigate.

Holly, wrote a fan letter. Although she’d never written a fan letter before, she, was determined to make a good impression on David Hasselhoff.

Clunky eh? I’m 98% sure I don’t do this, but it could be possible. I imagine that the sentence would read and sound incredibly confusing.

There are six basic comma rules.

The series comma is optional. If you choose open punctuation you do not use the Oxford comma.  Use it with close.

Open—Holly ate walnuts, squid and bicarbonate soda while she waited for Mr. Hasselhoff’s reply.

Close—Holly walked to the hardware store, bank, and gun shop.

The compound sentence comma is optional. If you use the Oxford comma, you must use a comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence. If you don’t use the Oxford comma, you can’t.

Open—Holly bought duct tape at the hardware store and she withdrew all her money from the bank.

Close—Holly purchased an AR-15 at the gun shop, and she decided to have the kind man behind the counter add a bump stock.

The introductory modifier comma is optional.  Again, if you choose to use the Oxford comma you must use a comma to set off an introduction. If you don’t, you can’t.

Open—In 1981 Holly attended a David Hasselhoff concert in Berlin.

Close—In 1982, Holly had mono and missed the Hoffmeister’s brief American tour.

The appositive comma is mandatory. No choice here folks.

Open and Close—Holly, David Hasselhoff’s biggest fan, was institutionalized in 1984 for schizophrenia.

Non-essential clause commas are mandatory.

Open and Close—Mr. Hasselhoff, who went into protective custody after receiving Holly’s letter, is considered to be one of the world’s best singers by several people in western Kansas.

Miscellaneous commas are mandatory.  I know. I know.  I can hear you now. “WTF? Miscellaneous commas? You can’t just dump that load on us. You said there were rules. ” Hear me out. Almost all of these are commas you’re using anyway.

Geographical expression—The Big Hoff went to ground in Hamburg, Germany.

Dates—On June 16, 2016, the Knight Rider emerged from his undisclosed location.

Direct address —”You’re safe, Mr. Hasslehoff.”

To show contrast—Holly seemed like the most likely person to want David Hasselhoff dead, yet she was not.

I’ll admit, the last one, to use commas to show a contrast was not one I was familiar with.  If I added them, it was probably because I thought the sentence needed an illegal breath comma. The past 10-15 years have seen an increase in the use of the em dash in place of the contrast comma.

Mike Blackwelder seems fixated on David Hasslehoff—he is not.

I used a bastardized form of close punctuation for the first 90% of my novel. The good ole Oxford comma was there with the introductory comma but I left out the compound comma.  I also committed the crime of breath commas.  I’ve got a lot of commas to root out in later drafts.

Speaking of the em dash.  Next time we’ll cover the rest of internal punctuation from brackets to semicolons.  I know it doesn’t sound thrilling, but it’s like eating vegetables, and I’ve found that I rather like asparagus and broccoli.


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