The Grammar Bitch’s Guide to Getting Off Topic

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of writing conversationally, especially in blog posts. I think it’s easier for readers to follow, it’s more engaging, and it just sounds more natural. A logical consequence of writing how you speak is that, for many of us, we end up getting off topic a little bit here and there. We pepper our speech with asides and snippets of thoughts, and it’s only natural that those bits and pieces show up in our writing as well. I’m going to tackle the three most common types of punctuation that usually accompany these asides, and talk a little bit about how to use them correctly.

The em dash: The em dash looks like this: –. It’s longer than a standard hyphen in most font sets, usually around twice the length of a standard hyphen/minus and is sometimes indicated with two hyphens if the actual em dash is not available. A set of em dashes is used to indicate an aside that is not directly related to the rest of the sentence. For example: “I used to eat cupcakes all the time–I have Funfetti stories that you wouldn’t believe–before I found out I was allergic to frosting.” (That story is not true, in case anyone was worried.) An em dash can also be used to indicate interruption:

“I said to her, bitches love frosting, but she–”

“Well, you know, not everyone loves frosti–”

“Don’t interrupt me.”

You see what I mean.

Parentheses: Parentheses are these things: (  ). They’re everywhere. In a sentence, they’re used to indicate an aside, much like an em dash. In fact, em dashes and parentheses are often used interchangeably. One of my early writing teachers told me the best way to think of when to use parentheses is if what goes inside them can be taken out of the sentence completely, and the sentence will still make sense, or taken out of a paragraph without altering the meaning of the paragraph. For example, in my em dash entry, I could take out the parenthetical aside about my made-up frosting allergy without affecting the paragraph’s structure or meaning.

Many times, you’ll encounter parentheses where commas would be a better choice. I think lots of people had a fear of commas instilled in them at a very young age. Now they’re terrified to put them in their writing, and use every other form of punctuation instead. When using parentheses, ask yourself if your sentence still makes sense without the words within the parentheses. If not, use commas instead. If your aside can stand on its own as a sentence, you may not need the parentheses at all. Too many parentheses sometimes indicate to a reader that the author hasn’t organized their sentences very well. If you’re telling a story, tell it. If you find yourself having to explain things in parentheses too often, you may need to restructure your piece.

Ellipses: Ellipses are the bad boys of the punctuation world. They show up all over the place, misused, misunderstood, and trailing off into nowhere. An ellipsis looks like this: “¦ HTML helpfully spaces them for me, but when typing them out without the aid of HTML code, there should, according to most style guides, be a space in between each period, as well as a space before the first and after the last periods. Ellipses are used to indicate one of several things: the omission of a word or phrase in a quote, an intentional pause, or the trailing off of a phrase or sentence. For example: “Well, I was going to get my post in before deadline, but “¦ ”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asides and digressions. Keep in mind, though, that they should be used as seasoning, not as your main ingredients. Too many parentheses, and your piece becomes the literary equivalent of Crazy Aunt Edna, always muttering about things no one can comprehend.

How about you, readers and writers? What’s your favorite way to interrupt your own writing?

20 replies on “The Grammar Bitch’s Guide to Getting Off Topic”

You know what I hate? When people put periods on the wrong sides of quotation marks. Like if I’m saying: He said he wanted to “make up.” The period should go on the outside of the quotations because the period isn’t part of what he said/his quotation, it’s the end of my sentence.

I don’t know if that’s clear, but I find it so frustrating when it’s done wrong.

That’s actually something that varies by style guide. Most American style guides tell you to put the end punctuation inside the quotation marks, even if it’s not what’s being quoted, unless it’s a question mark. British style guides usually tell you to punctuate outside of the quotation marks.

I can usually tell if a writer I’m editing is American or not, based on what they do with end punctuation and quotation marks. Since I edit for consistency and use the AP Styleguide, for the most part, most posts on Persephone end up with the American, inside-the-quotation mark end punctuation.

I would not survive without the holy em dash… Eh, and maybe ellipses, too. Lately I’ve worked to keep them at a minimum and I’ll revise my work if I get the urge to put in more than 1 per every 2 paragraphs; I sheepishly admit I keep track because I find them hard to resist (I am quite fond of them). I never thought about it before, but I like how pileofmonkeys associates asides with a conversational writing style. That’s very true and an interesting insight. :)

@Crystal Coleman, in both the Mac and PC versions of Word 2007, ellipses are essentially automatic. If you type a word followed by 2 hyphen characters and another word with no intervening spaces, as soon as you hit the spacebar or enter, Word converts the words and dashes to word-EmDash-word. It’s very cool if you’re into em dashes.

I love em-dashes and parentheses, but my ex-boyfriend abused the heck out of ellipses. I’m still too traumatized to use them with any kind of frequency. Maybe I should stop stalking his facebook statuses so I can recover. But it’s really bad. If he’s telling a little story in his status, he uses ellipses instead of periods. I don’t understand it. It’s awful.

My favorite thing is using very few parenthetical explanations, but when I do use them, make the most of it and cram those puppies full. I’m working on a blog post today–an English Literature analyzes “Friday” by Rebecca Black–and I’m sure I’m going to be very self conscious of my asides.

P.S., Team Oxford Comma!

My sister does the same thing, only she uses commas instead of periods to make her ellipses. For an example: Maybe the sun will come out today,,,

It’s rage educing, and I’m not even fanatical about grammar! If you’re going to use it, at least use the right mark.

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