The Petulant Poetess Punctuation Guide.

Punctuation has become something of an obsession of mine over the past few years. I think this is because I spent the majority of my working life not really worrying about it. (As a computer programmer, the only punctuation I ever had to deal with was the semi-colon.)
When I learned you couldn’t just throw down a comma when you felt like taking a breath; that you don’t just drop in a semi-colon when you’re bored of using full stops; that two exclamations marks is always one too many. . . . Well, I’m afraid to say I became a bit of a punctuation Nazi. I read book after book, studied at various schools of religion and criticized others who had yet to see the light.

There’s nothing as irritating as the suddenly converted.

Anyway, I’m over that now. As many have said, punctuation are road signs to the reader, and when you know what you’re doing then there’s no reason why you drop in the occasional diversion. There are lots of rules, and lots of them conflict, so in the end you just have to settle with what you’re comfortable with.

Here’s my favourite example: the em-dash is used as a pause or sudden interruption.

She was cheap—or so he said—and would make a terrible mother.

Nothing wrong with that, except I’ve never been happy with the way such an interruption looks on the page. Something about it always struck me as rather heavy-handed, so I use the less common, and often frowned-upon, en-dash variation.

She was cheap – or so he said – and would make a terrible mother.

To me, that looks much better even if it’s not strictly correct. On the other hand, the em-dash looks fine if the interruption occurs at the end of a line:

‘What did you just call me, Douglas?’
‘I called you a—’
She slapped him – hard.

So I like to mix and match.

I tend to dip into quite a few punctuation guides when I’m stuck for a particular rule, or looking for some way to give a piece of writing more clarity and/or impact. While I’ve been working on The Quisling Orchid I’ve discovered that my favourite reference comes (once again) from a rather unlikely source.

The Petulant Poetess is a site dedicated to Harry Potter fan-fiction, but it also hosts a very good punctuation guide. The guide itself follows the Chicago Manual of Style pretty much, but it’s very compact and has adapted to publishing on the web (where it can be quite difficult to indent a paragraph, for example).

If you’re stuck for the comma rules, or your not sure if it’s safe to use a semi-colon, then it’s definitely worth a look.

A little narcissistic …?

… To have a mug with your own picture on it?


Yeah, maybe just a bit.

Anyway while I’m here, I have a recommendation for you. Now, there are no end of web sites covering grammar and punctuation, but I recently ran into the Petulant Poetess. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, poetry and fiction in general, then great, but tucked away just a few short hops from the title page, you’ll also find a rather nifty punctuation guide.

Very concise, very easy to follow and little less rigid in its advice. Whether or not this is more suitable for prose and poetry writing … Well, I wouldn’t like to say 🙂

But it’s definitely worth a read.

Breaking the Rules

If there is one thing guaranteed to send your submission from the envelope, straight to the ‘shred immediately’ pile, it’ll be a grammar/punctuation mistake in the very first paragraph. There are still so many writers send out this first submission without doing the care and due-diligence that will get them that vital initial read.

Now when I first started workshopping, my first few pieces were not so good. It wasn’t that they were poor stories; the main problem was the punctuation. It seems I’d managed to get through most of my life without really understanding when to use a comma and when to use a semi-colon. Fortunately, my immensely supportive group mentioned this (and it isn’t down to your workshoppers to educate you in the basics of language),  so before writing another chapter, I set about fixing things.

There is a wealth of tutorials and advice, on the web and in books, that can help if you feel you need improvements in style, grammar and punctuation. Personally, I think Trask is a must-read, and the Purdue University has an encyclopaedia of notes and exercises that covers just about every aspect of writing. Not a lot of effort, really, and it would be such a shame to have your work rejected for the sake of a few minutes reading.

So, the next chapter my workshop reviewed was a masterpiece in structured grammar and meticulously placed commas. They went wild for it! Loved it! Applause, flowers, underwear – thrown onstage! A work of literary genius!

Except for one tiny, tiny problem:


‘Well, it’s nothing really…’

‘No, go on.’

‘You seem to have lost some of your flow.’


‘You had a lovely poetic flow to your last chapter. This one seems a bit more, you know, rigid.’


‘Yes, rigid. The punctuation’s much better though.’

So now I’d gone completely the other way; applying the rules to such an extent that the piece, while easier to read, had lost much of its spark.

Law-abiding waterfowl

It’s an old analogy, but punctation symbols are like road signs: too few and the reader loses their way; too many and the reader becomes distracted, tripping and stumbling through the prose and losing any sense of flow. So when it comes to punctuation, you need ‘just enough’. Above everything else, you are aiming to guide the reader through the text with as light a touch as possible, and sometimes that means breaking the rules.

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