Wednesday, December 12, 2007


BEACON FLASH # 24 - November 2007

Flash readers quickly responded to my request for topics with a bucketful of ideas. Thanks to everyone who sent in their questions. All of them will be covered, either in a Beacon Flash, the quarterly Beacon e-newsletter, or here over the next few months. (To sign up for Beacon Flashes and the quarterly e-newsletter, please visit

I had to get my expert editor, Joyce Gram, to tackle the first topic.

KJ wrote:

I often enter writing contests and get frustrated by the criticism I sometimes receive—all about punctuation! I have been used all my life to using “normal” punctuation, equal to that presented in Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But I keep seeing novels using single quotation marks instead of the traditional double marks for dialogue. And I was taught to use an exclamation mark when a voice was raised or a yell took place or I wanted to make something dramatic. Now, they tell me that the exclamation marks slowed down the story and ruined the endings (I have had that three times now from the same judge). Is it a hang-up of the particular judge, or is the current punctuation changing?

Writer and editor, Joyce Gram ( responds:

Dear KJ,

Sorry you are disappointed by the criticism of judges, but I hope that won’t discourage you from continuing to enter contests.

There are two lessons here (at least). First, writing is an art, not a science, and, while there are conventions, nothing is carved in stone. Second, a reader’s response to a piece of writing, including the punctuation in it, is largely a matter of taste. What I like, you may detest.

You will never go wrong if you pay attention to your punctuation and are careful to follow convention most of the time. When in doubt (and sometimes when not in doubt but for good measure), consult a style book. I recommend Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th edition), The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition), and, of course, Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves. When you choose to defy convention, make sure you have a good reason. Try the conventional punctuation first. Does it work? Might it be better? Never let your burst of cleverness get in the way of your writing.

As for that three-time judge, well, perhaps he or she read one too many exclamation marks and said, “That’s it! No more! The next person to use one gets the axe!”

Regarding quotation marks in novels, Joyce tells us that Garner of Garner's Modern American Usage says:

"In marking quotations, writers and editors of AmE and BrE have developed different conventions for quotation marks (or "inverted commas," as the British call them). In AmE, double quotation marks are used for a first quotation; single marks for a quotation within a quotation; double again for a further quotation inside that; etc. In BrE, the practice is exactly the reverse at each step."

Chicago says (11.33):

"Quoted words, phrases, and sentences run into the text are enclosed in double quotation marks. Single quotation marks enclose quotations within quotations; double marks, quotations within these; and so on....The practice in other English-speaking countries is often the reverse; single marks are used first, then double, and so on."

Couldn't be clearer.

(Ed: Joyce never fails to amaze me--now we all know.)

(c) Joyce Gram 2007. All rights reserved.