Thursday, October 29, 2009

More Self-Editing Tips—Punctuation

We are in the middle of a two-day fall snowstorm. So far we have about 18"—a little hard to tell because of the wind drifting the snow. It's supposed to snow another 4–8" before it tapers off sometime around midnight tonight. So I'm staying snug in my house . . . and working . . . when I'm not outside shoveling. It's a great powdery snow. The skiers are ecstatic. LOL

Today we're going to talk about the colon, semicolon, and period. Fairly straightforward, actually. And some opinions run high, especially on semicolons. But I'll explain why in a minute.

Very simply put, outside of the usual uses of these punctuations, you use a colon after introductory material; a semicolon between two independent sentences, in place of the separating commas in a series where there are commas already; and periods in a.m./p.m., but no period in most capped abbreviations.

Let's look at some examples.

The grocery list his wife gave him was a menu for breakfast bacon, eggs, bread, milk, butter, and coffee.
The grocery list his wife gave him was a menu for breakfast: bacon, eggs, bread, milk, butter, and coffee.
Because a list of items follows the introductory material about the list, use a colon.

Another use for the colon is to separate two very similar sentences. Here are a couple of examples from the Chicago Manual of Style:

They even relied on a chronological analogy: just as the Year II had overshadowed 1789, so the October Revolution had eclipsed that of February.

Many of the police officers held additional jobs: thirteen of them, for example, moonlighted as security guards.

Some people enjoy staying home during vacations others prefer to spend this time as far away as possible.
Some people enjoy staying home during vacations; others prefer to spend this time as far away as possible.

Between two independent sentences. This semicolon use is not a hard and fast rule in fiction. Some authors feel it sticks out, abruptly slows the action. And I can see that argument in a fast-paced mystery or suspense. However, I like the semicolon and feel it's a little misunderstood. LOL I don't recommend using it on every page, but judiciously sprinkled in it can be very effective. BUT I do not like using it in dialogue. We may read over semicolons in narrative and non-fiction, but we don't speak in semicolons. That's my personal preference, and when I'm editing a book manuscript those are the guidelines I follow . . . unless I'm working on a project for a publisher and I know that author doesn't like them anywhere. Then I follow the author's preference.

Send sample copies of your books to our distributors in Hartford, Connecticut Bangor, Maine and Easthampton, Massachusetts.
Send sample copies of your books to our distributors in Hartford, Connecticut; Bangor, Maine; and Easthampton, Massachusetts.

Two things about this sentence. There is no colon before the list because this list is actually the object of the preposition. Don't separate an object from the rest of the sentence with any punctuation. However, because of the use of the comma in the elements of the list, we need to use semicolons to separate the items. Putting commas in there is too confusing otherwise.

9:00 a m
9:00 a.m.

600 BC, AD 2009

These examples are self-explanatory, but just a reminder. The preferred way of doing the a.m./p.m. is with the lowercase letters and periods. The other accepted way is to use small caps, no commas. As for the capitalized BC and AD, they do not have periods because they are capitalized abbreviations.

Hope that helps clear up a little confusion on these pieces of punctuation.

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