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Using Punctuation Conventions to Convey Meaning in Writing

Instructor: Lisa Kuchta

Lisa has a master's degree in communication, has taught college communication and writing courses, and has authored a textbook on presentation skills.

This lesson focuses on how punctuation can convey meaning in writing. In particular, this lesson explores: the ending punctuation of periods, exclamation points, and question marks; the emphatic differences between dashes and parentheses; the use of quotation marks in humor; and ellipses for dramatic pausing.

Grammar - A Necessary Lesson

Grammar is one of those school subjects that most people hate studying. But unlike anatomy, trigonometry, and ancient history, it is one of those school subjects that we all can and will use throughout our lives. We need proper grammar to help our writing make sense. I like to tell my students that grammar is like a computer code; the punctuation marks you use tell your reader how your writing should be read.

Ending Punctuation

As you likely know, there are three potential punctuation choices for ending a sentence: a period, an exclamation point, and a question mark. Let's look at these in more detail:

  • A Period - Ending a sentence with a period tells your reader that the sentence should be read normally, as though s/he is simply stating a fact.
  • An Exclamation Point - An exclamation point means that the sentence should be said with more feeling - whether that feeling is excitement, surprise, anger, or some other extreme emotion. In writing, it is common to use exclamation points when writing characters' dialogues. You should, however, avoid exclamation points in academic writing, since those documents tend to be more straightforward and less emotional.
  • A Question Mark - Question marks are used to end questions. When writing dialogue, however, ending a sentence with a question mark can also signal to readers that a sentence or utterance should be said like a question, even if it's technically not. For instance in the sentence 'Maybe we could go outside?' the question mark cues the reader to inflect up at the end.

Emphasis and De-emphasis

Punctuation marks can help your reader understand how to emphasize (or not emphasize) certain phrases in your sentences. In particular, two different punctuation marks can help to make those distinctions: dashes and parentheses.

Let's imagine we are writing about how Maya went out to dinner with her brother-in-law Fred. If we thought that this dinner meeting was inappropriate, we might want to emphasize that Fred is the husband of Maya's sister. By putting that information into dashes, we are cuing the reader to read that fact with more stress and intensity than the rest of the sentence, almost as though there were an invisible exclamation point after 'husband':

Maya went out to dinner with Fred - her sister's husband - at La Bouffe last night.

If we thought Maya and Fred's dinner date was far less scandalous, the fact that Fred is Maya's brother-in-law might just seem like extra information. Thus, we could de-emphasize that fact by putting it into parentheses. This cues the reader to read it with less stress and intensity than the rest of the sentence:

Maya went out to dinner with Fred (her sister's husband) at La Bouffe last night.

Irony and Humor

Quotation marks are a vital part of writing, since we need them to directly quote experts, reports, and characters in dialogue. Quotation marks, though, can also serve a more creative function: they can serve as signals for irony and humor. Consider the following dialogue between two parents about their toddler's evening:

MOM: How did Jack do tonight?

DAD: He did fine. We played blocks, he 'ate' his dinner, and then we did bath, story, and bed.

We can understand that the quotation marks mean that Dad said the word 'ate' jokingly. Mom surely understands from the sarcastic tone used on that word that little Jack mostly pushed food around on his plate, threw it on the floor, or spit it out once it was shoveled in.

Pausing and Hesitations

There may be times in your writing when you want your reader to pause dramatically or you want to accurately represent a character's hesitation in dialogue. In those instances, you can use an ellipsis, which is written as three periods in a row. Ellipses can be used to demonstrate... uh... well... pauses.

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