Saturday 25 September 2010

Punctuation (The Marks Brothers)

Have you met the marks brothers? No, not the brothers Chico, Harpo and Groucho Marx, but the brothers Exclamation, Question and Quotation Marks.

While the exclamation mark and the question mark both evolved from the full stop, the quotation mark stands alone—but not quite alone, as it’s always used in a pair.

The most important uses of quotation marks [“ ” or ‘ ’] are to:

• indicate direct speech  Example: ‘Don’t go,’ she cried.

• indicate a quotation  Example: ‘Shakespeare,’ Tim strummed a light chord on his old twelve-string, ‘said, “If music be the language of love, play on!” I’ll give you as much music as you can stand!’

• highlight a portion of text for a specific reason  Example: ‘We’ll stay at “The Four Feathers” tonight,’ Mr Beeves promised his wife.

American usage prefers double quotation marks [“ ”] for direct speech, while British English tends to favour single quotation marks [‘ ’]. Consistency is more important than worrying about which to use: if you start your direct speech with single quotation marks, keep that format throughout your novel.

The correct placement of punctuation is important when using quotation marks:

• include punctuation that is part of the direct speech inside the final quotation mark

• when a sentence of direct speech is split by a speech verb, the comma must be inside the quotation mark

• short quotations integrated into a sentence can be marked off with quotation marks, but longer quotations should begin on a new line and do not need quotation marks

As quotation marks are quite polite they, unlike the other two marks brothers, work well with other punctuation marks. Exclamation marks and question marks rudely push aside the other punctuation marks.

An exclamation mark [!] replaces the more sedate punctuation marks with extreme emotion. ‘I hate you.’ sounds a lot less angry than the dramatic ‘I hate you!’

But overuse—or, worse, multiple use!!!!!—of the exclamation mark turns drama into melodrama. Don’t fear the exclamation mark; use it judiciously to:

• convey strong emotion
• indicate irony or reverse meaning (Thanks a lot!)
• emphasising insults or expletives (You little shit!)
• command (Get lost! Vamoose!)

The question mark is not quite as brash as the exclamation mark. It replaces the full stop at the end of any sentence that asks a direct question. Compare

They’re flying to Timbuktu. Again. 


They’re flying to Timbuktu? Again?

Sentences that take the form of questions may not be questions and therefore do not end with a question mark. Example: Would the owner of the black BMW in the disabled parking bay please move it immediately. Although that’s framed as a question, it’s a request or command, and thus does not end with a question mark.

When deciding whether a sentence should end in a question mark or not, look at the intended meaning rather than the grammatical form. Indirect questions do not have question marks, but direct questions—no matter how long and convoluted they are—always require a question mark. If you use quotation marks or parentheses, make sure you place the question marks at the end of the question they belong to.

The marks brothers serve a special purpose that no other punctuation mark can. It’s best, though, to let their use arise naturally, as they can directly affect the pace and sense of drama in your text. Make sure you get the effect you aimed for.

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down,
I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
Groucho Marx

“The Art of Punctuation” by Noah Lukeman
“Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Punctuate” by George Davidson
“Collins Wordpower: Punctuation” by Graham King
Marx Brothers Image from FlikR/twm 1340


Robyn Campbell said...

Great post my friend. When I am beta reading I see a lot of sentences where writers use way too many or wrongly use exclamation points.

Let their use arise naturally. Wonderful words. So many folks try to force the marks brothers in. Wrongly used and the entire scene is ruined. :)
Christopher and I love you so very much. He gets upset if I don't mention his true love for you. :)

Judith Mercado said...

Thanks for the reminder about the correct usage of quotation and exclamation marks. I must admit when I first started reading,your use of the single quotation mark threw me. As an American, I am of course used to the double quotation marks. I find them especially useful when the speaker is quoting someone else. Then I use the single quotes. Of course that does not come up often. What I still cannot embrace is current writers who have abandoned quotation marks altogether. That always ends up being confusing and ultimately irritating. I have never figured out why quotation marks have been singled out. Why not eliminate capitalization, commas, etc.? Well, that's enough of a rant from me. Sorry.

Helen Ginger said...

Great post. Single and double quotation marks can be confusing. And that's without taking into account the variance between countries. Plus, the rules seem to be changing in places.