A Writer's Fourteen Best Friends

By Professor Jen

One of a writer's most important tools in writing readable fic are punctuation marks. There are fourteen punctuation marks in English grammar. Can you name them all? And more importantly, do you use them correctly?

The fourteen marks are:

Now let's discuss each mark in turn.

Period, Question mark, Exclamation point, Ellipses, Em dashes

Every sentence must have a closing punctuation mark. A sentence, whether complete, a fragment, or a single word, will have one of the above marks.


Joe went home.

Did Mary go with him?


After all that had happened, Jack never expected *that*....

Jack considered going after her, but no--

A few words about the above marks...

Period, or full stop for the Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders: Okay, nothing much to say about this one. We all have this mark covered.

Question mark: We all know this one, too. If you or a character is asking a question, use this mark.

Exclamation point: Use sparingly. *Really.* There are better ways to get the point across, no pun intended. Use words, not punctuation marks.

Ellipses: This mark has two distinct uses, one for non-fiction writing, one for fiction. Use an ellipsis when dialogue or internal thoughts trail off. If the sentence is not followed by another, you can use ending punctuation (period, question mark). Either one must follow the ellipsis. Quote marks can also be used with an ellipsis.

Em dash: This mark also has multiple uses. It is used at the end of a sentence to indicate that the dialogue or thought has been abruptly cut off. Only quote marks can be used in conjunction with the em dash.

Comma, Colon, Semi-colon


Jen said, "I love to write fan fiction."

Yesterday, we went to town.

We did not, however, find what we were looking for.

I love ice cream, but it doesn't love me.

I love JAG, Robin Hood, and Star Trek fan fiction.

Robin Hood had a four-part plan: rescue Marian, rescue Much, capture Gisborne, and escape to the forest.

Joe's words hurt Mary; she knew he'd only said them for that purpose.

A few words about the above marks...

Comma: The comma is the most mis-used mark of punctuation there is; maybe because it performs so many functions. So let's cover them in the order of importance for fan fiction.

i) to set off dialogue

ii) to set off introductory words or phrases, whether in dialogue or narrative

iii) to set off a parenthetical element (as opposed to using parentheses, which is a no-no in fiction), whether in dialogue or narrative

For more in-depth coverage of commas with examples, visit the Capital Community College Foundation's site, The Guide to Grammar and Writing's, page about commas.

Colon: I've used these quite a bit on this page, along with the above example, so you can glean its use. But I rarely find colons in fan fiction.

Semi-colon: Can be used in place of a period when the relationship between two sentences is so close you want to make a single sentence out of two.

En dash, Hyphens, Em dash


JAG aired from 1995-2005.

Jill worked part-time at the factory.

They watched back-to-back episodes of NCIS.

She wrinkled her noseónot in a cute I-hadn't-thought-about-that way, but in more of a I'm-not-so-sure-I-like-that-idea kind of way.

ďIf you were my woman, thereís no way in hell Iíd let you out of my sightólet alone my lifeófor that long.Ē

I knew she'd chosen her markóme.

A few words about the above marks...

En-dash (use a single hyphen): Used in writing to connect continuing or inclusive numbers.

Hyphen: Used for compound words, when a multi-syllabic word needs to be broken up at the end of a line, or when a sentence fragment is used to put forth a concept or idea.

Em-dash (use two hyphens): Can be used in place of commas in certain instances when a bit more emphasis is needed. It is primarily to set off introductory, parenthetical, or an emphasized conclusive element.

Brackets, Braces, Parentheses

I'm not even going to explain these because these marks are for professional/non-fiction writing. Yes, even parentheses. Use commas or em dashes where you would use parens.

Apostrophe, Quotation marks (single or double), Ellipses


Did you see John's new car?

What happened to Caz' dog? or What happened to Caz's dog? (both are correct)

It's a blue muscle car.

A few words about the above marks...

Apostrophe: Used for two primary purposes:

i) to show possession--except for it's; it's is only a contraction of it is or it has (Possessive pronouns do not require apostrophes: yours, hers, his, its, etc....)

ii) to show missing letters/create contractions

Quotation marks


Katie said, "What's for dinner tonight?"

The newspaper headline exclaimed, "Godzilla stomps Tokyo."

"Oh, she doesn't like me. I'm in politics. Don't you know a 'southern lady never dirties her hands with politics?'" Susan affected an even thicker Southern drawl than normal as she said the last part.

"I canít do this. Iím sorry if Iíve given you the wrong impression, but Iím not...I canít...."

A few words about the above marks...

Quotation marks: Double quotes are used to mark the start and end of quoted material, whether character dialogue or passages from other sources. Single quote marks are used for quotes within quotes. Double quotes are used in the States, while the Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders generally invert the usage.

Ellipses: In fiction, ellipses can also be used to show pauses in a character's dialogue or thoughts. There are no spaces between the words and the ellipse, nor is the word immediately following the ellipse capitalized unless it is a proper noun.

Don't be afraid to wield these tools to the greatest advantage in your story, but make sure you always use them correctly.

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