Punctuation: Road Signs for Readers

The title says it all, really. All punctuation (periods, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and so on) functions like road signs, but for readers instead of drivers. The cleanest metaphor is a period; it’s a stop sign. It signals the end of a thought. Commas signal a pause (not necessarily a breath!). Semicolons signal a connection of some kind. Parentheses signal additional information that isn’t required but is helpful. And so on.

In the same way that traffic signs keep cars from running off the road, punctuation marks keep the reader from ending up in the word weeds. At the same time, they help keep your thoughts in line, which you’ll see in action as you’re writing, I’ll wager. You type, then back up and add or remove a mark, then type more. You’re placing, adding, and removing road signs for your readers. A colon might mean “A list of items is coming up.” An em dash can signal “There’s a sharp change in direction here.” Quotation marks mean “Someone is speaking” or “This material is taken directly from a source.”

Is someone pausing to think in the middle of speaking? An ellipsis (three spaced periods with a space before and after, in Chicago style) lets the reader know it’s happening.

“I’m hungry for Japanese tonight. Let’s go to . . . How does Shiroi Hana sound to you?”

Are they changing thoughts midsentence? An em dash shows readers that.

“Sounds great! We can take my—Where are my keys?”

[There are other ways to indicate this by using beats. However, this post isn’t about that. It’s good to know more than one way to lead your readers in the right direction.]

And, as always, remember: I write about American English. If you’re using a different English, the rules and guidelines may well be different.

Semicolons Make Connections

I was recently told by a workshop attendee that my explanation of how semicolons work was the first one that made any sense to them. I stuck that feather in my cap immediately. Now to see if I can recreate it in blog-post form.

When you use a semicolon, you’re making a connection. It’s not just the visible one on the page or screen; it’s also a connection of concepts, of ideas, of sense. That punctuation mark tells the reader, “Pay attention to what comes next, because it’s closely related to what you just read.”

Using a semicolon entirely incorrectly is pretty difficult to do. Most writers I know have an understanding of what’s connected and what’s not. They would not, for example, do this: “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; a little girl was wearing an orange romper.” Those two ideas have no connection. The semicolon indicates that one exists, though, so we readers are left trying to “make connection happen.” And it won’t. That orange romper has nothing to do with the ice cream truck’s existence, arrival, or position. And the ice cream truck has nothing to do with the little girl’s clothing. That semicolon is simply incorrect.

Even if we rewrite the second independent clause (the part following the semicolon), it’s still a stretch to call it “connected” in the correct way. “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; the first little girl to run out to meet it was wearing an orange romper.” Those are still two discrete ideas. The truck is still not connected to the little girl’s clothing, nor can it be. A semicolon just won’t work there.

Look back at the second paragraph, where I used a semicolon to connect two related thoughts. (Start with the second sentence in that paragraph.) We could use a period there, but it’s stronger to place a semicolon after the first independent clause. That tells the readers that what follows is directly related. In this case, it’s a further explanation of the connection. There’s the visible one, and there’s the ideological, syntactical, grammatical one.

Nothing says you must use semicolons. Some writers prefer not to, ever. That’s certainly a safe choice. Some people believe semicolons should never appear in fiction. I disagree. I suggest to my clients that they use them where it makes sense, even in dialogue. Remember, punctuation marks are to the reader as road signs are to the driver; they guide. They assist. They are meant to be used, not shunned or ignored.