This is the eighth in a series of posts to address common issues in manuscripts with my suggestions for how writers can improve their manuscripts before turning them over to agents, editors, and the many other individuals involved in the process of turning a manuscript into a book.
#8 Use only appropriate Sentence-Ending Punctuation
There are five appropriate sentence-ending punctuation marks, three legitimate ones and two coincidental ones that just end up there because of what the author has written.
- The legitimate ones
- periods (referred to as full stops in British English) (.)
- question marks (also referred to as interrogatory marks) (?)
- exclamation points (!)
- The coincidental ones that just end up there
- ellipses (. . .)
- em dashes (—)
The Legitimate Ones
The most common sentence-ending punctuation mark is the period. A period at the end of a sentence is what we all expect. When you reach the period, the message is complete. Anything else signifies information beyond the words that were spoken or written. And that’s why we have more than one sentence-ending punctuation mark.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.William Shakespeare, As You Like It
The appropriate mark at the end of a question is a question mark. Pretty obvious, right? Questions might indicate a request for information.
Who is that masked man?
Or they might serve as a clue that the speaker disbelieves what has been said.
Are you telling me you’ve never been to Paris?
The inherent quality of a sentence ending with a question mark is that the speaker wants more information.
An exclamation point marks the end of a sharp or sudden utterance (says Merriam-Webster.com).
Such utterances are not usually whispered or spoken in one’s inside voice. And that’s why people interpret an exclamation point as evidence that the speaker is shouting. Add all caps, and the message is even clearer.
Since almost no one in the world likes to be shouted at, editors, including me, stress the importance of being very cautious in the use of exclamation points. Some editors will accept one exclamation point per chapter. Some accept one per book. The most stringent of editors prefer to see only one exclamation point in a lifetime’s work. My view is that if you need one, use it. But if you use too many, be aware that the reader may be dissuaded from continuing.
The Coincidental Ones
Ellipses (or ellipsis points as The Chicago Manual of Style refers to them) function most often within sentences. CMS defines an ellipsis (three or four marks that look just like periods) as denoting “the omission of a word, phrase, line, or paragraph from a quoted passage.” When the passage continues after the ellipsis until it reaches the end of a sentence, the ellipsis consists of three dots. When the omission falls at the end of a sentence or in the middle of text that picks up again with a new sentence, the ellipsis consists of four dots, which is really a sentence-ending period followed by the three ellipsis points. An ellipsis can also follow other punctuation marks, including commas, colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points.
When following the rules for the use of an ellipsis when a character stops speaking without finishing the thought, CMS refers to the dots as suspension points. This is the case for the appropriate use of the ellipsis (or what looks just like an ellipsis) as a sentence-ending punctuation mark.
I wonder if I will finish my first novel this year or . . .
Like ellipses, em dashes are used most often within sentences, where a comma, a semicolon, parentheses, or a period would also be appropriate, but where the writer wishes to connect items or distinguish among items, when the use of other punctuation may lead to confusion. For example, when items in a sentence, separated by commas, include one or more items that are further explained within the text, as an appositive would do, the use of commas alone may confuse the reader regarding how the pieces of the sentence fit together. The preceding sentence, with em dashes in place of some of the commas, makes the main clause easier to identify by isolating the subordinate text between em dashes:
For example, when items in a sentence—separated by commas—include one or more items that are further explained within the text—as an appositive would do—the use of commas alone may confuse the reader regarding how the pieces of the sentence fit together.
One of the usual uses of em dashes, according to CMS, is “to indicate sudden breaks.” This may occur within a sentence or at the end of what is spoken, whether or not it’s a complete sentence. This is where an em dash functions as a coincidental sentence-ending mark in dialog. If one character interrupts another in mid-sentence, an em dash marking the interruption at its end becomes a sentence-ending punctuation mark.
She said, “I thought we were going—”
He interrupted and said, “Don’t tell me what you thought. You never think things through anyway.”
Ellipses vs em dashes
The rules to remember:
- An ellipsis marks the end of a segment of dialog if the speaker trails off without finishing . . .
- An em dash marks the end of a segment of dialog if the speaker is interrupted—by someone or something.
Putting them all together
Question: How do all these sentence-ending punctuation marks go together?
Answer: One at a time. No sentence-ending punctuation mark should be repeated or combined with another sentence-ending punctuation mark.
Never use more than one sentence-ending punctuation mark together with another one. One period (.) One question mark (?) One exclamation point (!) That’s it.
Each sentence needs only one sentence-ending punctuation mark. What might look like three or four periods in a row is really a three-dot ellipsis or a period that ends one sentence followed by a three-dot ellipsis that marks something has been left out.
What about the interrobang? (‽ or ?!)
Merriam-Webster.com defines the interrobang as “a punctuation mark (‽) designed for use especially at the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question.” It combines a question mark with an exclamation point. Considered an unconventional punctuation mark, its use has not caught on widely, but I suspect this will change. Given my statement above that exclamation points are interpreted by readers as shouting, I will continue to recommend against using the interrobang. I suspect in the future, it may become accepted since each legitimate sentence-ending punctuation mark already includes what looks like a period, and each conveys its own subliminal meaning (surprise for exclamation marks and more information, please, for question marks) that may call for combining occasionally.