Here's how you can use punctuation with power and purpose

To help readers, we punctuate for two reasons:

  • To set the pace of reading
  • To divide words, phrases and ideas into convenient spaces

You will punctuate with power and purpose when you begin to consider pace and space.

Think of a long, long, well-written sentence with no punctuation except the period. Such a sentence is a long, straight road with a stop sign at the end. The period is the stop sign.

Now think of a winding road with lots of stop signs. That analogy describes a paragraph with lots of periods, an effect that will slow the pace of the story. The writer may desire such a pace for strategic reasons: to achieve clarity, convey emotion or create suspense.

If a period is a stop sign, the comma is a signal to keep going but with caution — it's a speed bump. The comma may be the most versatile of marks and the one most closely associated with the writer's voice. A well-placed comma points to where the writer would pause if she were to read the passage aloud.

The semicolon is  a "rolling stop." More muscular than the comma, it is most useful for dividing and organizing big chunks of information.

The parentheses introduce a play within a play. Like a barricade in the middle of a street, the parenthesis forces the reader to drive around it to regain the original direction.

The dash is a tree branch in the road. But the dash has two brilliant uses. A pair of dashes can set off an idea contained within a sentence. A dash near the end can deliver a punch line.

The colon announces a crossroads. Here's what it does: It announces a word, phrase or clause the way a trumpet flourish in a Shakespeare play sounds the arrival of the royal procession.

Taken from The Writer's Workbench: 50 Tools You Can Use, a self-directed course by Roy Peter Clark at Poynter NewsU.

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    Vicki Krueger

    Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current position as marketing communications manager.

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