Taking an Ax to My Old Flame—

While my subconscious works out a problem in my romantic comedy, I’ve been editing the first novel I completed—fourteen years ago. As I read, it became apparent I was a little too fond of the em dash. I think I used at least one on every page. So I decided to run a search for them.

emheartIn a manuscript of 89,000 words, I’d used 543 em dashes! Seriously. Five hundred forty-three. I wouldn’t have thought that possible.

Don’t get me wrong. The em dash is legitimate punctuation. I use it to indicate an interruption, add emphasis, or a sudden change of thought. For instance:

“If you’re asking me to—”

The man—swear to God—had giggled.

She would trust him again—in time.

The party lasted all night—where were you, by the way?

I could use parentheses, colons, and commas in place of some of the em dashes, but my fiction is usually informal, so the dashes fit.

In my defense, I’ve learned a thing or two about writing in fourteen years. I no longer have such a blatant crush on that bit of punctuation. I kept all the em dashes used to indicate interrupted dialogue, but many of the others were not used to good effect and bit the dust. The total now stands at a more reasonable 384, but I still have rounds of editing to do. And I haven’t checked the ellipsis count, yet.

Do you have a punctuation weakness?

 

Linda

Might as well face it, I’m addicted to …

Commas! There. I said it. I’m a comma addict. I love them. They’re beautiful little things that add pause and sense and order to sentences—if you know how to use them correctly. Apparently, my lack of education is appalling.

commaYou’re probably aware of this quote:

“I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.” — Oscar Wilde

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but after a few hours of inserting, deleting, and sometimes re-inserting commas on one recent editing day, I decided to get smart and refresh my knowledge of comma usage rules. I say refresh because I thought I’d learned all the rules at one point. Not so.

What I discovered is that I use commas where they seem appropriate to me, but sometimes often I do so in ignorance. It’s not entirely my fault. I was taught the bogus rules of always using a comma before but and never using one before because. But other rules I’ve been breaking, I imagine some teacher tried to pound into my thick skull at one time.

I’m in luck. Recently, one of my sons bought me a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, so I am currently experimenting to see if an old dog can learn new comma tricks. I started with nearly 5,100 commas in my 91,000+ word manuscript. I’m re-evaluating each one. That’s not quite as tedious as it sounds. So far, this exercise has resulted in many improved sentences in ways other than comma use. Even my readers who don’t care a whit about commas will appreciate that.

Here’s a link to the excellent punctuation section of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL).

elle

How do you punctuate after a terminal ellipsis?

We tackled this question with the em dash in the last post, so this time let’s turn our attention to the terminal ellipsis. Like many writers, I use an ellipsis at the end of a line of dialogue to indicate the character’s voice trails off. Since this leaves the sentence unfinished, it seemed logical to me not to use any end punctuation. Like this: “I love you, but …”

As I read, I noted the terminal ellipsis used with and without punctuation. I’ve only recently begun to use punctuation with such an ellipsis, but I’m waffling. It just seems odd to punctuate an unfinished sentence.

The book that sparked my previous post also sparked this one. I thought I’d finally learned the rules about using punctuation after an ellipsis, but I saw something in that book, I’d never run across in reading. The author used a dialogue tag after the ellipsis, so she used a comma. Like this example:  “I love you, but …,” she said.

That looked odd to me, so I immediately started searching some of my work to see if I had omitted the comma in such instances. I discovered that apparently, I’ve never used a dialogue tag after a terminal ellipsis. Of course, I pulled books off my shelves and continued my search.

One of the writers I checked used a dialogue tag without a comma. Another didn’t use dialogue tags but did sometimes continue the sentence with an action after the trailing off speech, and in those instances, she did use a comma after the ellipsis.

What about the use of other punctuation with a terminal ellipsis? Some writers use the ellipsis to indicate trailing off speech with no punctuation. Some do use punctuation. One of the writers I checked, Anne Tyler, uses punctuation only sometimes—and I’m annoyed that I can’t figure out her rule for that!

To muddy the waters more, even writers who do use punctuation after the ellipsis don’t all agree on its placement—before or after the ellipsis. When I researched this in the past, I read a rule that said if the completed sentence would have been a statement, place a period before the ellipsis. If it would have been a question or an exclamation, place the appropriate punctuation mark after the ellipsis. (I don’t remember that they explained this difference.)

In my recent search, I found two authors who used punctuation with a terminal ellipsis when they used no dialogue tag. Anne Tyler, who used it only sometimes, placed the period before, but the question mark or exclamation point after the ellipsis. Joyce Carol Oates, who punctuated always, placed all marks before the ellipsis.

I know we should all be conservative in our use of the ellipsis, but when we do use it at the end of a line of dialogue, it seems the rule is up for grabs. We have:

“I love you, but …”

“I love you, but. …”

“I love you, but …,” she said.

“I love you, but …” she said.

“You love me, but …?”

“You love me, but … ?”

“You love me, but? …”

Okay, folks, surely you have an opinion on this one, so please share. Do you use an ellipsis to indicate trailing off in dialogue? Do you use punctuation with that? If so, where do you place that punctuation?

UPDATEIn the comment to this post, someone posted a link to Grammar Girl’s advice on punctuation with an ellipsis. She quoted The Chicago Manual of Style, but the ellipsis use she cited was mostly to indicate words left out of quoted material. When I googled for the CMOS take on the trailing off ellipsis in dialogue, I found this in their online Q&A: If you use the ellipsis merely to indicate a voice or thought trailing off, you would not use the period with it: “I’m not sure . . .” [http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Punctuation/faq0066.html]

How do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

A particular use of punctuation jumped out at me as I read a recently published book.

In general, I observe punctuation rules, so I’d like to know if the one used in this book follows an old rule, a new rule, or a house style. I question whether it’s a house style though–unless those change depending on the author—because I have books published by the same house in which this particular style is not used.

EM DASH — This author, as many of us do, used an em dash to indicate interrupted speech. But what struck me was a difference in the punctuation used after that dash. For instance, I would write such a sentence this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

But if those lines appeared in this book, the first would have been punctuated this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—.”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

You’ll notice the period after the em dash. I’ve since pulled novels off my shelves searching for sentences with interrupted speech. I haven’t found one yet that duplicates this author/editor’s construction.

Am I behind the times or have I, and countless other authors, been doing it wrong all along?

Your turn: Please tell me, how do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

(See my next post on using punctuation with the terminal ellipsis.)

 

Your sentence deserves a good beating!

Do you hear the music in your writing? I’ve finished another round of red-pencil editing on my manuscript and next week I’ll start a read through. This time I’ll be reading aloud and recording it. Yes, I know, novels and short stories aren’t usually read aloud, but the voice in our heads is not really silent as we read. It picks up the rhythm, the music in the writing.

The sentence beats are what I listen for when I read my work aloud. Sometimes, I sense that a line is not working, but don’t know why until I hear it read. Often, the problem is that the sentence has one or two syllables too many or too few—one word—throwing off the rhythm.

Sometimes, it’s not the number of syllables that makes the sentence awkward, but the syntax. In those cases, often just a reordering of words or clauses frees the rhythm.

Another thing to consider is punctuation. Pauses are beats too. Sometimes a comma added here, or removed there provides the sound you’re after. A semi-colon might provide the continuation of flow that pleases your ear. Or possibly the removal of one gives the staccato effect needed in this part of your story.

So, listen for beats as you write because when a sentence trips up the tongue it also dances clumsily on the page.

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