Elements of Critique: Quotation Marks

There’s an arguably crude joke about the Oxford comma (the one that you may have been taught does or does not go before ‘and’ within a list of items).

Consider the difference:

“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK, and Stalin to the party.”
vs
“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK and Stalin to the party.”

Maybe JFK and Stalin have a more colorful history than I knew.

Punctuation matters. But so does point-of-view, which is why that got the ‘P’ slot in this A to Z list. So today, I’ll focus on Quotation Marks (and other punctuation).

It’s my blog. I can cheat.

Quotation mark rules are easy to follow, but the marks are easy to miss, judging by the critiques I’ve done thus far. I watch for marks at the start and end of the quote, and I check whether the marks enclose required punctuation such as a comma, period, or question mark at the end of a phrase or sentence. And if the quote includes the speaker reciting a quote, then single quotation marks surround that recited quote within the double quotation marks.

There is one case where a question mark might not be enclosed in the quotation marks. If the speaker is asking a question using a quote, the question mark belongs outside the quote. For example:

“Did God really say, ‘If you eat the fruit, you shall die’?”

The fact that the first example I can think of is from Satan might be a clue that it’s easier to simply avoid this structure if at all possible.

Another note, with quote marks, is that you don’t have to end a paragraph with a quotation mark if the next paragraph starts with the same speaker speaking. The next paragraph starts with a quotation mark, and a quotation mark goes at the end of the speech, however many paragraphs it lasts.

Also, I look for new paragraphs to start with each new speaker. Having multiple speakers in one paragraph, even with proper punctuation, is a nightmare to the reader.

Enough about quotation marks; on to commas!

I started with a comma joke, and mentioned the Oxford comma. This is an example where either way is considered correct depending on the style required by whoever the writing is for. If it’s being submitted to an editor or publisher who wants it a certain way, then of course follow that guidance. Otherwise, I look for clarity or lack thereof, and critique as needed.

Comma overuse is the most common issue. Some of us probably learned to include commas wherever there might be a verbal pause. This can lead to some clunky writing. For me, commas separate clauses in a sentence, identify amplifying phrases, and establish lists of related items.

“She went to the store, but it was closed.” Separated clauses (independent first, dependent second)

“When writing, as with many creative endeavors, originality is of paramount importance.” Amplifying information phrase

“When he saw her, he waved to get her attention, but, shocked by the frustration on her face, he cowered.” Stuff like this just needs to be split into two sentences.

Shorter sentences with less modifiers read clearer than long, winding structures full of elaborate phrases. Those are things I look for in critique.

One special case of punctuation peril is the semi-colon. Sometimes we try to use them because they are often neglected, and it’s a nice change from the mundane. Contrary to what I often see, semi-colons only join two related independent clauses. That means if the semi-colon is removed, two complete sentences remain.

Both the independence and the relationship of the clauses matter. Wrong use looks like this:

“I try to use semi-colons sometimes; a neglected form of punctuation. It makes my writing look flashy and trendy; not mundane or mainstream.” In this case the problem is the latter phrases are not independent clauses.

“Sometimes I try new things in order to be creative; the semi-colon is a neglected form of punctuation.” The relationship is off here. I see this problem in fiction where two unrelated bits of description are thrown together with a semi-colon, like pulling ingredients out of the cabinet and throwing two at random into the pot, hoping for a good meal.

Semi-colons are a special kind of punctuation. They are almost never a case of must; we only use these when we should.

Finally, there is the ellipsis, those three dots symbolizing an omission of words from a quote. This can be in the middle, showing skipped words, or at the end of the quote, showing that the original quote goes on further but is not reproduced in the writing at hand.

Right example: “Four score and seven years ago…”
Wrong example: “I was reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and… ugh, history is so boring.”
They aren’t designed or intended to be used as a symbol for lost train of thought, or walking into the middle of a conversation, or awkward pauses, or suggestive questions, and so on. Writers sometimes do this, and even get away with it. But that’s not the purpose of this punctuation mark, so I critique it. Misuse might draw unwanted attention (read: rejection) from prospective readers and editors.

You can quote me on it, so long as you use quotation marks properly.

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