Like we saw in Tone It Down: Making Sure Your Words Say What Your Mean, all writing conveys some emotion or tone. Tone is largely a result of word choice, but it is also expressed through punctuation.
We’re all familiar with punctuation marks and how they should be used, but it’s easy to forget just how profound an impact these tiny little marks can have on the nuances of a piece. Here’s a quick refresher on the subtle—or not so supunbtle—messages punctuation can communicate.
I’ll freely admit that the dash is my favorite mark, mostly because it is such a precise piece of punctuation. A dash indicates an aside, a sort of a nudge-nudge to the reader. Dashes are somewhat abrupt and work well for sly, witty, and sarcastic remarks, as well as side notes or additional information that you want to emphasize. Because the dash is considered one of the stronger forms of punctuation and it interrupts the sentence, it’s best to use dashes sparingly.
The exclamation point is definitely the strongest punctuation mark. It can help a phrase express anger, excitement, surprise, joy, or any other strong, expressive emotion.
Exclamation points should appear very rarely within a piece; too many exclamation points can sound like shouting. An excessive number of exclamation points is distracting, makes a piece sound over-hyped, and weakens your message. And it is never appropriate to use more than one exclamation at the end of a sentence in professional writing.
If you find yourself tempted to scatter exclamation points all over your writing, look for ways to express the same sentiments with words rather than with punctuation. Opt for profound writing over excessive punctuation, and trust the words to do their job. We often add extra punctuation (especially extra exclamation points) because we want to make sure the reader gets it. But don’t worry, if you’ve worded your piece well, your message will get across just fine.
Periods add a tone of finality. They signal the end of a thought. If your tone is neutral or harsh, periods are the way to go. Of course, every sentence has to end at some point, but if you are trying to create a smooth, light, or friendly tone, intersperse some commas between phrases instead of just periods. Commas will help writing sound more conversational, while overusing periods will make writing sound a bit stiff.
Semicolons are stronger than commas, but weaker than periods. They indicate a substantial pause within an unfinished thought. Use a semicolon when you want two ideas (expressed in independent phrases) to be closely connected in the reader’s mind. A correctly used semi-colon adds authority to a piece; a misused one weakens it quickly.
As mentioned before, commas give a piece more of a conversational tone. They add smoothness to writing, and connect ideas with just a brief pause in between.
Just two notes about question marks:
1. Only use a question mark if you are actually writing a question. Sentences like, “I wonder who it is” are not questions. “Who is it?” on the other hand, is a question and can rock that question mark like it’s going out of style. Which it certainly is not, and this brings me to my second point.
2. Do not use more than one question mark at the end of a sentence in professional writing. Ever. More than one question mark does not make something more of a question than it already was. If a question is asked in surprise or disbelief, use words to convey this, not extra punctuation.
Ex: “How can you say that?”
This is expressive, but if you’d like it to be more obvious that the speaker is in disbelief, try something like, “How can you possibly say something like that?” Adding words like “possibly” and “something” clues the reader in to the emotions of the speaker without using superfluous punctuation marks.
Parentheses, like dashes, provide an aside within a sentence. Because parentheses are more enveloping than dashes, the information included in them can be heftier or even more tangential. Even whole sentences can be places within parentheses.
Depending on how they are used, parentheses can add to the conversational quality of a piece or they can make it more rigid. To keep a piece conversational, use parentheses sparingly and keep the information in them short.
Ellipses are frequently used in dialogue to signal a trailing off in thought or speech; they are also used before an afterthought. When used like this, ellipses are fairly casual and add a colloquial feel to a piece.
Ellipses are also used as a placeholder for text that was removed; this usage doesn’t convey much tone in itself, but this convention is often used in professional and academic writing.
Punctuation marks are powerful things, and a perfectly punctuated piece can be thrilling. Learn to use each punctuation mark correctly, and you’ll have more control over the tone your writing presents. The key is to not use any one piece of punctuation too much. After really taking some time to appreciate punctuation, you might even find that you prefer correct punctuation and precise wording to emoticons!