Writing

Five More Wordcraft Questions Writers Fight Over

Two hands breaking a pencil
Sometimes writers just want a simple answer to a technical question, but everyone is telling them different things. Not only that, but many people will assure them that if they get it wrong, they’ll be humiliated once they send their work to an agent or editor. I’ve covered some of these questions previously, and now it’s time to look at more. Behold my attempts to give you reasonable, middle-ground answers despite how opinionated I am.

1. When Is It Okay to Use Sentence Fragments?

We all learn in elementary school that sentences must be a complete thought, and pieces of sentences are no good. Of course, it’s necessary to make kids construct full sentences when they’re still learning how to do it, or they won’t learn. In the adult world, fragments are okay – sometimes. Other times, you can expect your editor to mark them all in red. While the threshold for tolerating fragments will naturally vary, here’s my three-part criteria for when fragments are acceptable.

The fragment must fit the style and tone of the piece.

Like other light rule-breaking, fragments work best in text that is casual and conversational. An academic paper – or a viewpoint character with an academic way of speaking – is not the best place for a fragment. Similarly, if your narration is more distant than you intended, sticking in a conversational-sounding fragment may feel jarring.

Clashing: Based on the recommendations the committee wrote in their assessment, of which the director was quite confident, the project was in need of new leadership. Like hell.

Better: The director did whatever the committee wanted, and the committee told her the project needed a new leader. Like hell.

The fragment must be bold and intentional.

Even though Mythcreants has a casual tone, over the years I’ve edited out a lot of sentence fragments. That’s because they sounded like the writer didn’t bother to complete a sentence rather than like the writer was choosing a fragment for effect. Often, these fragments left out the words people casually omit when speaking. I won’t say fragments like these don’t belong anywhere, but unless your narration is very conversational, they’ll probably clash with their surroundings.

Feels unintentional: Some writers never complete their sentences. Not a great choice.

Bold: Some writers never complete their sentences. Not good.

The fragment must need to be a fragment.

Sometimes fragments work just as well when they are part of the sentence next to them. If you can create the effect you need without breaking any grammar rules, do that.

Needless fragment: Some writers never complete their sentences. Not good.

No longer a fragment: Some writers never complete their sentences – not good.

If you’re not sure whether a fragment works, play it safe by putting it in a complete sentence.

2. How Should Punctuation Be Used in Dialogue?

Writers are divided over whether dialogue should be treated like regular narration. Some see dialogue as notation implying the auditory sounds characters are making, and others see it as expressing meaning like everything else.

The biggest evidence of this divide is how punctuation is treated. Those who think of dialogue as implying sound see punctuation as a way to indicate pauses in speech, thereby changing the implied sounds a character is making. If you see anyone describe a comma as a short pause and a period as a longer pause, that’s the camp they fall in. If this is the philosophy you subscribe to, punctuation in dialogue can go anywhere you want a pause, not just where it’s grammatically correct.

The other camp says that the purpose of punctuation, in dialogue or out of it, isn’t to indicate pauses. Instead, the purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning. This matches how many writers, and copy editors especially, are taught to treat punctuation in writing across the board. While many elementary schools teach kids to read commas as pauses, the official rules for their use are designed solely to clarify what the writer means. Writers who place commas wherever they would pause when speaking are bound to put commas where they aren’t supposed to go.

However, the fact remains that a great many people read pauses into punctuation, whether or not that’s intended. What’s more, when writing dialogue, implied pauses will change the tone of a character’s words, therefore also changing the meaning. Since people don’t speak according to official rules for grammar or punctuation, following the rules can limit a writer’s ability to write expressive and natural-sounding dialogue. That’s why I’m on Team Punctuation-as-Pauses; though, personally, it’s just difficult for me to derive meaning from text without translating it to sound first.

If you want to play it safe, using the same punctuation rules as your narration won’t make waves. However, you’ll still be fine if you use a few special punctuation conventions for dialogue. Mainly, use em-dashes for abrupt interruptions and ellipsis for when a character trails off.

3. Is It Okay to Use Semicolons?

Many ongoing arguments are caused when writers overuse something, and other writers form a backlash to that overuse. So it is with the semicolon. But like “ly” adverbs, few people actually think semicolons should never be used, and those who do are probably just tired of seeing them abused. It’s easier to tell writers to stop using the semicolon than it is to teach them how to use it correctly.

Semicolons are used to join two independent clauses – basically, to glue two sentences together. They are best used when those clauses are short and their meaning is closely linked, making it appropriate for them to be a single sentence. The usage is similar to that of a colon, but the colon usually joins a complete sentence (independent clause) and a fragment (dependent clause).*

Let’s look at some examples. The positive ones are from yours truly, because if you haven’t noticed, I’m a great lover of the semicolon. Open any article or story by me and just search for “;” if you’d like to see how I use them. Here’s a sentence from one of my stories. The two clauses are short, and the second clarifies the first.

Nia was right; he’s planning something devious.

Next, have a look at the paragraph below, from a recent post of mine. While these semicolons could be changed to periods, you’ll notice that the phrases they’re joining are more closely related to each other than they are to the other sentences.

A hook is always a question or problem. A question sets up a mystery; your text will promise to solve that mystery. A problem sets up a struggle; your text will promise to show the outcome of that struggle. Technically, problems are also questions.

If you accept the premise that punctuation changes pace and indicates pauses, then semicolons are a valuable tool for enabling a shorter pause. For instance, if the semicolons above were replaced with periods, we’d end up with a series of sentences that were too uniformly short. The paragraph would become choppy and halting.

However, writers often use semicolons where they should simply end the sentence. Here’s an example from The Maze Runner that doesn’t benefit from the use of semicolons. I would replace them with periods.

The lightless elevator swayed back and forth as it ascended, turning the boy’s stomach sour with nausea; a smell like burnt oil invaded his senses, making him feel worse. He wanted to cry, but no tears came; he could only sit there, alone, waiting.

Unfortunately, for those with a habit of writing run-on sentences, the semi-colon can also enable bad style habits. It gives writers a way to make long sentences technically correct while avoiding the hard work of cleaning them up. Semicolon-enabled run-on sentences are particularly common in academia, so writers with academic backgrounds are more likely to have this issue.

While I think semicolons come in handy, they’re rarely necessary.* If you’ve been overusing them, going without could help you practice better habits. If you haven’t been using them, you don’t need to start. If you love them, you probably won’t get yelled at as long as you use them sparingly. Probably.

4. How Should We Refer to People of Any Gender?

Welcome to the battle over singular they – would you like a helmet? In case you’ve been out of the loop for the past five years, the convention to use “he” or “he or she” to refer to a person of any gender has come under heavy fire. Besides the sexism of using “he” by default or the awkwardness of “he or she,” many people of nonbinary gender do not want either “he” or “she” applied to them. All of this has created a strong push toward adopting the solution we use when speaking: singular they. It’s now at the point where singular they is officially in the Chicago Manual of Style.

However, that hasn’t stopped many people from objecting. In my experience, most of the objections come from older generations of writers and editors who don’t personally know anyone who’s nonbinary and don’t like the change to what they’re used to. They’ll usually make some argument about how singular they is bad for the English language. I’ve met a few others who don’t have any objection to the idea of singular they, but they get disoriented when reading stories where it’s used for a character of nonbinary gender.

I wrote a whole post promoting singular they, so Mythcreants has taken a side. We use singular they all the time, and we’re almost never criticized for it. But let’s say you’ll be writing in a more traditional setting, and your goal is just to avoid the crossfire.

Staying neutral is a tough thing to do here. If you use singular they, it’s always possible for some traditionalist to complain. If you use an older convention, younger people especially will interpret that as antiquated at best and bigoted at worst. The only way to not raise flags for anyone is to avoid using any pronouns for a hypothetical person of any gender, a person of unknown gender, or a person of nonbinary gender. That’s a lot of work, and you’ll probably need to make some compromises to your content.

If that’s too much for you, go with the future-proofed option – singular they – unless you are writing specifically for an older audience and you won’t be referencing anyone who’s nonbinary.

5. How Many Exclamation Points Can I Use?

Yep, we’re on another backlash-inspired question. At least with exclamation points, I haven’t heard anyone argue they should never be used, although I have heard limits like “one per novel.”

Overuse of exclamation points seems to stem from two issues. First, some writers misunderstand the effect they produce. While they do indicate strong emotions, they also suggest that a character is being particularly energetic in the expression of those emotions. A character that’s upset can come off as engaging in hysterics. A character that’s happy can come off as having drunk four cups of coffee. When writers attempt to use exclamation points to emphasize drama, they end up with comedy instead.

Second, some writers just like conveying how upbeat and excited they or their characters are. But like bolding and italicizing every word in your novel, it’s just too much. If your character is supposed to be peppy and excited, express that by bringing out all the reasons they should be excited rather than repeating how excitable they are.

So when are exclamation points actually okay? First, you’re fine if you’re using them to express volume but not emotion. So, if one character is calling to the other from across a football field, go ahead and use one to indicate that they’re yelling. Of course, characters shouldn’t have a whole conversation with each other across a football field.

The limits on dramatic use are somewhat fuzzier. First, make sure there is a compelling reason for strong emotion. This could be true for one of the pivotal scenes of a novel, but definitely not for every scene. Then, make sure there isn’t more than one exclamation point per line of dialogue. If a character says three sentences, you can choose one to have an exclamation point. Next, don’t have one for every line each character says. You might use it for two lines in the whole conversation.

Last, ask yourself whether your character tends toward theatrics. If they are angry, might they be cold or brooding instead? Try out some short and terse sentences. If the character is happy, consider whether they’d really be jumping up and down or if they’d feel more warm, peaceful, or relieved. Consider skipping the exclamation point and instead using a little body language to indicate how happy they are.

It’s easy to look bad by using too many exclamation points. So if you know you have that issue, you might consider more severe limits.


I said what I thought; how about you? Are semicolons a travesty or an essential part of writing? Does dialogue represent sound? Let me know in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Bunny

    I did some research on the singular “they” a while ago, and it’s got much more history than most people give it credit for. In fact, the singular “they” has been a part of the English language for a very long time. The very earliest singular “they” traces back all the way to 1375, in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Famous minds since then have used it in their writing, such as Lord Byron and Emily Dickinson, the latter of whom in 1881 wrote “Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself.” It’s not by any means a new phenomenon, so it’s weird to see it hailed as such – if anything, the traditionalists should be supporting its usage.

    Take that, any and all old fogies who’re sour about this newfangled singular “they”!

  2. Yora

    If you are talking about hypothetical people of any gender, you can almost always simply use the plural. Problem solved. It’s very rare that you write about specific individuals and can’t refer to them with a specific gender.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Editor’s Note here: A lot of people use they/them pronouns, or some other form of gender neutral pronoun. They are not rare or unusual. Claiming otherwise is a form of erasure and we ask our commenters not to do it.

      • Cay Reet

        I also find that they/them serves me well when I have investigators talk about a culprit whose gender isn’t known.

  3. river

    I love the semi-colon. I agree it can be overused and used badly, which has unfortunately tainted it for some people. No other mark of punctation does what the semi-colon does, and it makes me sad to think of it being abandoned as if it has no value. Cherish your semi-colons (responsibly).

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