How to punctuateBy Russell Baker
When you write, you make a sound in the readers head. It can be a dull mumble--thats why so much government prose makes you sleepy--or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.
Listen to a voice trembling in a haunted room:
Thats Edgar Allan Poe, a master. Few of us can make paper speak as vividly as Poe could, but even beginners will write better once they start listening to the sound their writing makes.
"My tools of the trade should be yours, too. Good use of punctuation can help you build a more solid, more readable sentence."
One of the most important tools for making paper speak in your own voice is punctuation.
When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly--with body language. Your listener hears commas, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, wrinkle your brow.
In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard.
Gee, Dad, have I got to learn all them rules?
Am I saying, Go ahead and punctuate as you please? Absolutely not. Use your own common sense, remembering that you cant expect readers to work to decipher what youre trying to say.
Punctuation puts body language on the printed page. Show bewilderment with a question mark, a whisper with parentheses, emphasis with an exclamation point.
There are two basic systems of punctuation:
Most writers use a little of both. In any case, we use much less punctuation than they used 200 or even 50 years ago. (Glance into Edward Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1776, for an example of the tight structural system at its most elegant.)
No matter which system you prefer, be warned: punctuation marks cannot save a sentence that is badly put together. If you have to struggle over commas, semicolons and dashes, youve probably built a sentence thats never going to fly, no matter how you tinker with it. Throw it away and build a new one to a simpler design. The better your sentence, the easier it is to punctuate.
Choosing the right tool
I cant show you in this small space how they all work, so Ill stick to the ten most importantand even then can hit only highlights. For more details, check your dictionary or a good grammar.
Comma [ , ]
Generally speaking, use a comma where youd pause briefly in speech. For a long pause or completion of thought, use a period.
If you confuse the comma with the period, youll get a run-on sentence: The Bank of England is located in London, I rushed right over to rob it.
Semicolon [ ; ]
Dash  and Parentheses [ ( ) ]
The dash creates a dramatic pause to prepare for an expression needing strong emphasis: Ill marry youif youll rob Topkapi with me.
Parentheses help you pause quietly to drop in some chatty information not vital to your story: Despite Bettys daring spirit (I love robbing your piggy bank, she often said), she was a terrible dancer.
Quotation marks [ ]
Betty said, " I cant tango." Or: I cant tango, Betty said.
Notice the comma comes before the quote marks in the first example, but comes inside them in the second. Not logical? Never mind. Do it that way anyhow.
Colon [ : ]
Apostrophe [ ]
If the noun is plural, simply add an apostrophe after the s: Those are the girls' coats.
The same applies for singular nouns ending in s, like Dickens: This is Dickenss best book. And in the plural: This is the Dickenses cottage.
The possessive pronouns hers and its have no apostrophe. If you write its, you are saying it is.
Too many exclamation points make me think the writer is talking about the panic in his own head.
Dont sound panicky. End with a period. I am serious. A period. Understand?
Well...sometimes a question mark is okay.