Punctuation! What to Avoid

While punctuation may form just a small percentage of a work’s overall character count, the use of it can make or break its readability. Punctuation is the vehicle for indicating to your reader how your sentences should be read, which can result in wildly different meanings. Let’s go over some common punctuation mistakes…and then some less common ones.

 

I know I already alluded to them, so let’s start with ellipses. An ellipsis is a set of three periods that is meant to communicate a pause or a trailing off.

“I don’t think…I like the sound of that,” whispered the captain.

The sailor scrubbed at his face with a shaking hand. “There goes the mast…”

Ellipses are only ever three periods. Not more and not fewer. More periods do not invoke a longer pause, they are just incorrect. Also note that it matters whether or not the ellipse runs up against the word following it. If it does, it implies a pause within a sentence. If it does not, it indicates that there was a pause between sentences that began at the end of the preceding one, and the second sentence should be capitalized. Try to hear the difference between these examples:

“Let’s just…go around. There is bound to be a better harbor on the other side of the island.”

“Let’s just go around… There is bound to be a better harbor on the other side of the island.”

 

I know we already talked a bit about commas, but let’s briefly cover a few places where they don’t belong.

I walked along the dock, while also whistling.

If you are using ‘while’ to join two sections of a sentence in the manner above, you don’t need a comma. Properly punctuated, this sentence would read:

I walked along the dock while also whistling.

I would argue that this is not the best form this sentence could take. Consider these more elegant options:

Whistling, I walked along the dock.

I walked along the dock, whistling.

In these instances the comma takes over the job of a joining word.

 

The interrobang. It’s elusive, strange, and somehow so alluring. It’s purpose is to indicate the inflection of both an exclamation mark and a question mark. While there is a singular punctuation mark that comprises the interrobang that looks like this:

often writers will substitute a doubled set of punctuation to take its place, like this:

“Why is the rudder gone?!”

In general however, this isn’t condoned. Many exclamation points can often be deleted from a manuscript, replaced by better forms of indication that whatever it was was exclaimed.

The captain whirled on the deckhand. “Why is the rudder gone?

“Why is the rudder gone?” screamed the captain.

 

Along this same line of thinking, some writers think they can endow their sentences with more intense meaning by including more than one of a single type of punctuation mark.

The mariner exploded. “Why is there no more rum???”

“But I need my rum!!!” his wife cried.

This does not pack the dialogue with more punch. Save the strings of question marks for text messages to your mother when you realize you don’t know how to do laundry.

Number vs. Amount, Less vs. Fewer

Sometimes less is more. Unless…it’s not.

It is one of my personal crusades to help people figure out the difference between less and fewer and between amount and number. While they may sound like synonyms, they each require specific context.

 

What I always lead with when trying to teach someone about the nuances of these words is, “Think about milk.” (My crew has become really tired of hearing that, by the way. They know what’s coming.)

If your milk is in gallons, then you have a certain number of those gallons. If you want to have fewer gallons, you can throw some away.

But if your milk is freely flowing, sloshing around in a pool or a puddle, then you have a certain amount of milk that probably needs to be cleaned up. Once you have mopped it up (or slurped it, I’m not judging you), then you will have less milk just lying around.

This makes sense, right? But how do we know when we should use which word?

Unlike many times you will deal with the English language, you will find there is a simple answer here. Does the plural of whatever you are talking about end in an s? Then you need to use number and fewer. Does an increased quantity of the thing not end in an s? Then you need to use amount and less.

As it happens, this is also the case for much vs. many.

You can have many gallons of milk.

or

You can spill as much milk as you want on the floor.

 

Just remember the milk.