Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pity the Poor Period

by Raelene Gorlinsky

The workhorse of punctuation. So common and standard that it is never noticed, unless it is missing The mainstay of sentences. But is it appreciated? Is it lauded and applauded? No! It is ignored or supplanted by flashier symbols popping up where they should not be!

I opened two mass-market-size fiction books at random and counted the sentence-ending punctuation on random pages:
19 periods, 1 question mark
21 periods
21 periods, 2 question marks, 1 ellipsis
24 periods, 8 question marks, 1 exclamation point (lots of dialogue on this page)
23 periods

Good, this seems about right, I didn't have any argument with the punctuation on these pages. But I wonder what that text was like when the author first submitted it, rather than this edited and published version. (Notice that this is a statement of what I am wondering, not a question - so ends in a period. However, if it were in dialogue and I wished to indicate that it was said in a interrogatory tone of voice, then ending with a question mark would be appropriate.)

Far too many authors seem to feel that the period is mundane and boring, that their writing is somehow improved by ending many hundreds of sentences with exclamation points (or multiple exclamation points!!!), ellipses, and em dashes. Yes, we editors have been known to actually count, in appalled fascination, how many exclamation points in a submission. And to wonder why authors can't read and follow the basic rules for punctuation. Or understand the proper use of sentence-ending ellipses and em dashes.

Em dash: an abrupt cut-off or interruption of a thought or spoken word.
Ellipsis: a trailing off of a comment or thought

So please, take a good look at the story you are writing at this moment. Use words, not just punctuation, to add emotion and depth to your writing. If the sentence is not exciting, ending with an exclamation point does not make it so.

Got a favorite example of misused sentence-enders in a book you've read? Or the most number of exclamation points ending a sentence? (I've seen up to five!)

And don't get me started on the proper punctuation of dialogue and dialogue tags...


Bill Greer said...

An overuse of ellipses drives me nuts. You shouldn't encounter it more than a few times in a book, let alone multiple times in one paragraph.

I tried to decide what to have for dinner... I thought about steak... Or maybe a salad...

Writing that like that makes me want to find the author and beat them with a punctuation book.

The other invented punctuation that gets under my skin is the question mark-explanation mark duo.

Did you see the size of his tallywhacker?!

It just makes me want to say, "Puh-leeze!" Or maybe that's Puh-leeze..."

Kimber Li said...

I'm so focused on the story, I hardly ever notice punctuation or grammar mistakes.

I have to come up with little tricks to remember what to use when. For example, I take out all the non-periods and if I don't miss them they stay out.

As for ellipses, I loooove them. I love them almost as much as I love the words 'sparkling' and 'shimmering.' Still have not found a good trick for weeding them out or at least keeping them at bay.

Then, there are the things I hate, but can't resist the eeevil lure of, like excessive prepositions and pronouns. I hate them! And the words 'that' and 'just.' They're a curse, I tell you, a curse, but I can't resist them. I just can't and that is the shimmering truth.

The best I can do is buddy up with a Grammar Goddess in my critique group and hand her a rolled-up newspaper to whack me over the head when needs be.

Angelia Sparrow said...


I once lost 250 word of a novel because I elminated every time I used the word "just."

I write m/m, so I learned early that pronouns were not my friends.

The period suits most situations. So does "said." I have friends with Fear of Said. I've read writers who thnk periods are boring so they "jazz it up."

If I use more than three exclamation points in a book, it's a rare thing.

ECPI Editors said...

Oh, yes, the multiple marks. Why?!?!?

Yes, Bill, I do see submissions where the author ends sentence after sentence with ellipses. I never could figure out why they'd think that is better than a plain period.


EilisFlynn said...

The interrobang has a purpose, Bill. It just doesn't get used properly.

Same with the ellipses ... (no, sorry, too obvious!)

Kimber Li said...

"I never could figure out why they'd think that is better than a plain period."

'Cause they're soooo pretty...

Angelia, thank goodness for the 'search & destroy' button on Microsoft Word! Uh, I mean, 'search and replace...' or...whatever the heck it is...

Anonymous said...

I must wonder: Is someone telling authors that using rashes of exclamation points and bevies of ellipses is a good thing?

I give as examples counts from two short pieces (from previously published authors) that I have recently edited:

* 453 exclamation points in a 29K piece (and, of course, many attached to dialogue that is followed by exclaimed, bellowed, bombasted, shouted, yelled, etc.); yes, 99% have been removed, along with those bellicose tags.

* 312 ellipses in a 20K piece, and all in dialogue or ending a chapter (with a complete sentence). I asked the author if any of the characters could form and/or speak a coherent sentence.

Is such use a display of insecurity in one's ability to provide strong, effective dialogue/narrative? Or, is it an author's assumption that his or her reader is inept and must be beaten over the head with such silliness.

Anonymous said...

I use periods all the time. Even when my character says something exciting. I thought maybe I was boring. Actually, I probably am boring but at least I don't overuse exclamation points!!! lol