Doubling Our Punctuation

NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.


A common mistake people make, particularly when writing dialogue, is using multiple punctuation marks such as ‘!?’ or ‘!!!’ or they use capitals and extra punctuation, ‘WHY?!’

Regular readers know I don’t tend to tell you that you can’t do something but in this instance I’m going to have to say that agents and publishers aren’t fond of extra punctuation and/or the capitalisation. There is a reason for this that goes beyond aesthetic and it is simply that agents and publishers like us, as writers, to show our skill with words. The effect that people are trying to create with the use of extra punctuation and/or capitalisation is easily created purely through description, implication and context. To create the same effect we don’t even need any fancy description for example instead of:

‘WHY?!’

We could have:

‘Why?’ Jesse screamed.

We might say that the first is more striking and uses fewer words but it’s also less professional, and we are professionals, as well as being grammatically incorrect. With an example of one sentence it’s a little less clear but the next time you read a book by your favourite writer consider the effect the context they create has. If we’re writing a scene in which two characters are arguing then the context of the dialogue being in an argument creates the emphasis we desire without the use of the extra punctuation. If we know the characters and the situation then we can often imagine how a character might say something, even without a dialogue tag.

In the case of multiples of the same punctuation, such as ‘!!!!’ or ‘????’, all the following punctuation is cancelled out by the original punctuation. An exclamation mark is an exclamation and we can’t get more exclaimed then an exclamation.

One area of writing where these rules don’t apply is in graphic novels and comics where there is a visual aspect as well. In a graphic novel although we have images we don’t have proses that describe the situation. We have a visual prompt and the dialogue but we won’t have a dialogue tag as well to describe how something is said as well. In this case the greater visual impact on the punctuation marks and the capital letters is part of the artwork and therefore different from prose where we paint the image with words that the readers makes into images.

In prose writing the only except to the repeated punctuation marks is the ellipses (…) which is different because it is a distinct punctuation mark of its own, rather than three repeated full stops. And it is three stops; adding more or less stops to ellipses doesn’t actually alter the length of pause/trail off which is a common misconception. I have an article detailing more about ellipses here.

Something we have to remember when we’re assembling our manuscript for submission or independent publishing is the professional standard of presentation for a novel/short story/other prose work. While we can argue over where commas and so on might go but there are certain expectations people have when they’re going to buy a book from us and excessive punctuation, unfortunately, will often count against us.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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