In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, Louis L’Amour repeats a charming story about two great actresses that reveals the power of punctuation:
Sarah Bernhardt . . . finally got a chance to see [Eleanora] Duse on the stage and, overcome with the greatness of the performance, wrote a very quick note to send backstage. It said: “Sarah Bernhardt says Eleanora Duse is a great actress.” Busy changing costume for the next act, Eleanora Duse had no time to compose a reply, so she picked up a pen and added two commas to the note and returned it. Now it read: “Sarah Bernhardt, says Eleanora Duse, is a great actress.”
Attention to detail is a habit every writer must acquire, for even the smallest element of our writing (such as punctuation) can drastically change—for better or worse—its clarity and quality. So, I thought I’d share just a few of the most common punctuation mistakes I see in work that writers submit to me as a literary agent:
- Misplaced commas. Standards have changed over the years, and readers tend to like fewer commas these days. But fewer vs. more is seldom the issue; misplacement is. So, for example, I see many sentences, such as “The biggest things that drive me crazy, are misplaced commas.” That sentence shows that it’s possible to be right and wrong at the same time.
- Overused exclamation points. I sometimes tell conferees and clients that they get one exclamation point in a book-length manuscript! More than that can be annoying! So, use your one exclamation point wisely!
- Using emoticons. Unless you’re writing a text or a casual email, just say no to emoticons. 🤪 See how silly that looks?
- En dashes and em dashes. A hyphen is an “en dash.” An “em dash,” such as I used in the paragraph above, is longer and is most often used to set off a phrase (as I did) or in dialogue to indicate an interruption. En dashes and em dashes are not interchangeable.
- Wayward question marks. I often see a sentence such as the following:
I asked her, “Where do you think you are going.”
I ask you, where is the question mark? Sure, the writer may have intended the sentence to sound like an exclamation, but if that’s the case, I didn’t ask her, I told her. Get my drift.
- It’s and its. This comes up again and again; but we’re writers, right? It’s simple to keep these two straight if you always read or hear “it’s” as “it is.” It’s never possessive; its is.
Now, I know there will be one or two smart alecks who point out a punctuation mistake in this post about punctuation. Go ahead, have at it!