February 5, 2010 / 7 Comments

Being Punctual

Dellman, your nose was on time but you were fifteen minutes late.

Pop culture reference for old people.

So, I said way back at the beginning of the ranty blog that I wasn’t going to bother with the absolute basics. I was not going to discuss grammar, proper formatting, or page counts. These are the absolute basics of writing, the grade-school stuff. If you’re reading this, I’m going under the assumption you already know the correct way how to string a handful of words together into a coherent sentence.

All that being said, I’m going to take a moment to talk about three punctuation issues that are probably the most common ones that get misused, overused, or not used enough.

Apostrophes — I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but I’m going to bring it up again. The apostrophe has nothing to do with plurals. Nothing! Say it with me. No-thing. Using it for plurals will get your novel, script, or short story tossed almost immediately. You’ll get one pass on the off-chance it was a typo or fluke mistake. The second time your manuscript goes in the big pile in the left. It’s a sure-fire sign you haven’t mastered the basics of writing, so why should a reader go further? Would you trust a mechanic to rebuild your transmission when he’s baffled by how to check the oil?

On a similar note– its and it’s. If you don’t know the difference, stop writing query letters or downloading contest entry forms. You’re just wasting time and money. Know the difference between these two. It can’t be something you’re pretty sure of or something you can figure out. You have to know this. It should be unconscious and automatic.

The Exclamation Point This is an easy one, right? You use it for emphasis. Problem is, many beginning writers don’t know when to use emphasis. They think if this is an exciting moment or a loud moment or an important moment, it needs to be emphasized!

Of course, most of the moments in your story are important. If they weren’t, you probably would’ve cut them already, right? Which is why some people feel free to scatter exclamation points throughout their action scenes or their shouted dialogue or their urgent reveals.

This kind of ties back to something I said a while back about using cool lines in dialogue. If every line is cool, none of them stand out and the dialogue is monotonous. The same holds true here– the more things are emphasized, the fewer of them carry actual emphasis. An exclamation point needs to be applied with care and thought. Just because someone’s shouting they don’t necessarily need one. They’re also not required for all angry dialogue.

Personally, I try to think of them like adverbs. Use them, but use them sparingly, and more in dialogue than prose. I almost never use an exclamation point outside of dialogue. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I did. I think the last time I poked at a screenplay, I may have used two.

There’s a related point for screenwriters. In scripts it’s common to capitalize something in the action blocks that’s important. For example, the first time we see WAKKO, his name is capitalized so the reader understands without question that this is a new character. When, out of nowhere, Wakko suddenly STABS his partner, that gets emphasized to make sure the reader registers the abruptness of it. Same thing if Wakko finds A SMOKING GUN on the floor by a puddle of blood, we want to be sure the importance of this sight is noted.

A common rookie mistake, by the way, is to capitalize such things in dialogue. Capitals in dialogue blocks means someone is shouting, and few things look as silly or as bad as coming across a character talking with his friend about how much he’d like to ask PHOEBE out on a date.

Now, here’s the catch to this. Much like with the exclamation point, a writer has to know how often to use these capitals. If they start cropping up in every action block–even if it’s an action script–they have less and less power. After a while they aren’t an emphasizing, they’re distracting. Wakko stabbing his partner is unexpected and needs that extra emphasis. Wolverine or Jason Voorhees stabbing someone… not so much.

I read a nice little gangster script a year or so back that started grating because the screenwriter emphasized every single gunshot. Every time someone fired there was a BANG. I’d fire twice and there would be BANG-BANG. Then you shoot back at me BANG BANG BANG. I got you BANG but there’s another guy up on the landing shooting down at me BANG BANG. Stay down, I’ll draw his fire. BANG BANG BANG. He shoots back BANG BANG…

As you can see, this gets old really fast. Can you imagine the lobby scene in The Matrix if that script was written this way?

Choose your emphasis the way you would choose your battles.

By the way, one last point. The all-caps thing was much more common in the past. If you’re seeing it in a lot of old scripts (or hearing it as advice from a lot of old gurus), just be aware that it’s no longer the convention, and hasn’t been for almost two decades now.

The Oxford Comma— This last one will be a sticky point and I’m sure it will get the comments section flowing. Debate over the use of the serial comma, also popularly known as the Oxford comma, has started two wars since Magna Carta, and countless minor skirmishes. They teach it in school, but most modern publications in America make a point of not using it. Oddly enough, I hear it’s the exact opposite in Great Britain, where they teach kids not to use it, but journalists insist on it.

I am of the school that you should use one. As a writer, my job is clarity, and while less punctuation might make my work feel like a slightly faster read, it also makes it less clear.

Here’s a great example of why you need an Oxford comma.

“Let’s split up. Shaggy, Scooby, Daphne and Velma, pick a door and see where it leads.”

How many groups did those meddling kids just split up into, three or four? Would you be caught off guard when, in the next chapter, you found Daphne alone? Or when you find her with Velma? You’ve probably heard of the apocryphal legal battles that result from wills written this way, when the inheritance is supposed to be split evenly between Tom, Dick and Harry. Does it get split two ways or three?

Here’s another one.

I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Either this author has a spectacular lineage or he dropped a comma he really shouldn’t have. Is the existing comma separating items in a list? Or is it an implied breath, a pause replacing the understood words who are named in that sentence? In this case, we’re probably safe saying Ayn Rand and God are not the author’s parents. But suppose it was my book and I had this.

I dedicate this book to my parents, David and Colleen.

Is it still so clear? It is to me. My parents supported and encouraged me, my friend David offered a great deal of fantastic editorial advice, and Colleen is the love of my life. How could this dedication possibly be misunderstood?

This is my main argument for using the Oxford comma. Y’see Timmy, there aren’t any optional rules in grammar. There isn’t a single punctuation mark where the rule is “use it if you think you need it.” Either the mark goes there or it doesn’t. Since we can come up with solid examples where the comma must be there for clarity, but there aren’t any examples where it can’t be there without causing confusion (I’ve yet to see one, at least), you have to go with using it.

Now, because it is a hotly debated matter, let me say this…

If you are absolutely, 100%, stake-your-life-on-it sure that the sentence could not in a million years ever be interpreted another way if that comma wasn’t there…

…and you are entirely, with the sum of all your being convinced that having the comma there utterly destroys the flow of your sentence to the point its meaning is lost…

…then, and only then, should you feel free not to include it.

By the way, if a particular editor (who wants to buy your work) chooses to remove the Oxford comma, that’s their prerogative. Don’t argue with them. It doesn’t mean they’re right, but they’re paying you after all. Heck, the magazine I write for tends to remove them.

And I continue to use them.

Next week it’ll almost be Valentine’s Day. So we could talk about love and feelings and relationships. Or we could skip straight to the sex. Which do you think will get more readers?

While you ponder that, go write.

0 replies on “Being Punctual”

Because I enjoy making your life difficult, I felt the need to post a counterexample to your Oxford comma advice:

"The flags above the capitol building unfurled red, white, and blue."

Obviously I mean the good ol' Stars and Stripes forever. How could that possibly be misconstrued? However, what about this?

"The flags above the dome unfurled red, green, and gold."

How many different flags are there on that dome? Is one solid red, another pure green, and yet another plain gold? Or are all the flags multicolored? The Oxford comma makes it ambiguous. I would argue that its omission makes it (if only slightly) less so.

Au contraire, mon ami. You're actually proving my point here. 🙂

This is using a vague sentence in an attempt to show the comma is the thing causing the vagueness. It isn't. The ambiguity is caused by plurals referencing plurals, not by th elist of colors. With or without the Ox there, we don't know if the list in this sentence refers to multiple flags with the same color scheme or to individual flags each with their own different colors. That's a problem with the sentence structure, not the grammar.


This is really the same example as I gave with the meddling kids up above. While the Ox can't make things perfectly clear in such an ambiguous sentence, it does reduce the number of possible interpretations. We either have several flags with the same color scheme, or three individual flags of one color each.

Without the Ox, however, in the example you've given, there are now three possible ways to read this sentence. It could be several flags with the same three color scheme; three flags with one color each; or it could be two flags, one of which is red and the other one being green and gold.

So, again, using the Oxford comma clarifies the list. It can't deal with the inherent ambiguity of the sentence, but it does make it less confusing by cutting down on the possible ways the sentence can be interpreted.

Interpreting the non-Oxford variation to mean that some flags are red and some flags are green and gold would be ungrammatical. That would be:

"The flags above the dome unfurled red and green and gold."

If the list is naming only two variants then no comma should be used. Admittedly, naming only two variants requires rewriting the sentence in an even more ambiguous way, but as we've already agreed, it's a bad sentence. Even bad sentences, however, are entitled to good punctuation!

My point is that the non-Oxford variation encourages conceptualizing the things listed as members of a group, rather than discrete objects beside bullet points. The effort to distill English grammar to a simple list of do's and don'ts is a valiant one, certainly, but ultimately Sisyphean because of the sheer number of exceptions and corner-cases. (For example, was my use of apostrophes in the previous sentence incorrect? Should I have said "dos and don'ts"? Or should it have been "do's and don't's"? The grammar blogs are in disagreement, and Firefox says I'm wrong no matter what variant I use.) As with any generalization, saying that you should always use the Oxford comma, no exceptions, is great advice for absolutely befuddled beginners because it's non-negotiable, but it may do more harm than good for intermediate learners who increasingly encounter such exceptions. (Advanced learners who aren't huge fans of yours will probably skip over this post anyway. 😉 ) The Oxford comma debate is not one that will be resolved anytime soon, because at the end of the day, it's a complicated issue that can't be boiled down to a simple "yes, always" or "no, never."

P.S.: The only reason you can say "Shaggy, Scooby, Daphne and Velma, pick a door and see where it leads" without including another "and" before Daphne is, near as I can tell, because you're listing names being used in the vocative. You wouldn't have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling exceptions…. 😉

The non-Ox interpretation of two flags is ungrammatical, I agree. The problem is it's still what the example says. Again, it's the same thing I mentioned above with the meddling kids and (more relevantly) with the legal challenges.

Which is where the problem lies. Without the Ox, there are more ways to interpret this. Suppose we had four colors? "The flags were red, white, gold and green." Now how many interpretations are there? One, three, or four flags?

Again, I would be more than willing to yield on this if anyone could come up with an example where using the Oxford comma caused more confusion than it prevented. But I have never seen one. This is probably the closest anyone's come, in my experience, and yet we're both admitting the real problem is that the sentence itself is ambigous, not the grammar. It should be a bit telling that the only way to make a case against the Oxford comma is to use a sentence that doesn't really work for either pro or con.

I will, however, yield on the apostrophe. It is do's and don't's, because there are two very specific cases where you use an apostrope for plurals. I didn't even consider these in the post because I was pulling my hair out from people posting about their favorite movie's and book's.

The ONLY times you can use an apostrophe for plurals are…

–When you are pluralizing single letters, like when I tell you to mind your P's and Q's (but not when you buy DVDs).

–When you are pluralizing specific words as units of language, like when I tell you there are thirteen the's in this blog comment, or when we discuss do's and don't's (but not when you pluralize nouns like cars, oranges, or… well, nouns).

Hi, I can't help but comment..

"I dedicate this book to my parents, David and Colleen."

Of course, Mr. Stranger, if you were the one writing this dedication, you'd know how many number of people and to WHOM are you dedicating. Now, if I were the one reading and I don't know you, then this is not really different from Ayn Rand and God — I'd think your parents are really David and Colleen. (I really did, until I read the paragraph after it.)

I agree with you about the "flags" example being ambiguous because it's an example of plurals referencing plurals — it truly is because of sentence structure.

I don't stumble much on apostrophes and commas. I think it's grade-school stuff, something that if you'd read Dick-and-Jane primers (are those still around?) when you were little, you'd already gotten how these things are used. What I would tend to wobble a bit on, is on the proper use of the word I capitalized above — TO WHO or TO WHOM. Those are things I think I just skimmed over during grade school. And then check this out — I said "to whom are you dedicating." Is that correct? OR should it be "to whom you are dedicating.."?

I knew nobody was going to leave comments about the exclamation point… 🙂

Beachcomber, exactly right. If it isn't two obvious names like Ayn Rand and/or God, the confusion caused by lack of Oxford comma is immediately apparent.

Who and whom, I freely admit, has always given me trouble too. At least it doesn't come up in modern colloquial English. The best way I've heard of checking is to substitue him. If the sentence still works, you should be using whom.

To whom are you speaking?

To him are you speakingRight

Whom is at the door?

Him is at the door? Wrong

Again, though, I freely admit this is a weakness.

belated comment! i don't completely disagree with you (woot, double negative), but does the oxford comma really rank as one of the worst things you can do grammatically? worse than hyphenating incorrect words, or overuse of semi-colons, or using inverted commas for emphasis, or using "off of" instead of "off"? there're so many terrible grammatical problems out there in the world, does that really rank up there in the top three?

altho i do take your point that it is one that can completely bugger up sentences. 😀

and since no one else has commented on exclamation marks, i shall add – they're surely not as bad as double punctuation marks, like "?!"… 😉

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