I am a first-time novelist and have finished my first novel that I hope to self-publish at the end of the year. My book is finished apart from teh punctuation questions I have. I have used guides to figure it out, but if anyone is willing to help with one or more answers, then it would be greatly appreciated!

  1. "Those things I said; I didn’t mean a word of it."

I know that semi-colons are not common in dialogue, so what else would work here? A colon? Em-dash?

  1. "You’re just making excuses—rationalizing your behavior.”

Should I use an EM dash here? Or just a comma?

  1. "I mean, was it really that awful?" Should there be a comma here or nothing? "I mean was it really that awful?"

Does I MEAN work like I THINK or is it more of a little filler expression so needs a comma? What about if it was this sentence: "I didn’t tell you about John because I want to be with him. I mean, not really." Is the comma here ok?

  1. I am this close to calling the whole second chance thing off. I have put second chance in italics. Would that be right?

  2. "“It’s been . . . it’s not been too bad."

Here, the character starts a sentence, then pauses, and says something slightly different. Is the above ok or does it have to be:

“It’s been . . . . It’s not been too bad."

When there are pauses, do you need to start a new sentence for something like this with a full stop after the ellipses? How about if there were several changes of direction.

Is this ok: “You...I...You’re...not disturbing."

Or does it have to be:

“You— I— You’re . . . not disturbing." using em dashes to show the sentence has been interrupted?

  1. After years of unnecessary injections of God knows what.

Does God knows what have to be in italics?

  1. Maybe I’m not the only one who knows the truth about John; maybe other people do.

Is a semi-colon needed here? Or em dash? Full stop?

  1. "John said it last time: most marriages don't survive such a loss."

Is the colon here ok in dialogue?

  1. "You’ll feel much better and you won’t feel like to throw up every time you see him—your words.”

If a character is quoting the exact words another character spoke previously, are italics ok or do you have to add inverted commas? E.g.

"You’ll feel much better and you won’t feel like to 'throw up' every time you see him—your words.”

  1. ". that whore, Joanna, has been -- sorry, I hate that word -- but Jake told me about two other married men shes's...

Are the em dashes above ok? Or should it be ellipses?

Thank you so much to anyone willing to give me some advice about any or all of these questions!


  • Hi and welcome to Writers. I've put this on hold because you're asking a bunch of questions all together, which makes this too broad to reasonably answer. Some of your questions might be better fits on EL&U. Finally, please note that questions asking for proofreading or critique are off-topic. You're welcome to ask a more general question using your own writing as examples. Please check out our short tour, and then feel free to edit this to fit site guidelines better. When you edit, the question will automatically go to a review queue for possible reopening. Thanks for understanding. Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 2:38
  • I asked several really short & simple questions & I got some amazing and very useful answers, and seeing as people were willing to give advice, I have no idea why this had to be put on hold. Shouldn't it be up to people to decide whether they want to go to the trouble of answering or not? There are some wonderful, generous people who don't mind helping others, and it doesn't seem like they need babysitting or protecting from themselves. What is EL&U? I was advised by Linguisics to come here as I hoped it was a place where writers could help each other. I will do the tour again but disagree.Tnx
    – MoniqueH
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 4:14
  • Hi Monique, and welcome again to Writers.SE :) I understand your dismay at having your question closed; I hope I can clarify. In brief: Stack Exchange Q&A sites are meant to work in the long run. It's great that we answer individual questions, but it's much more important that we've built up a body of questions and answers that people can search and find what they're looking for - because that's already been asked and answered. That's the kind of questions we're looking for - questions that other people will run into too.
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 18:49
  • So you're actually running into two different issues here. One is, you've grouped a whole bunch of different questions into one post. That's fine for you, because you get the answers you want! But it makes those questions and answers really hard for anybody to find, because they're mixed in with a whole bunch of other questions. That's why we work on a strict basis of one question per post.
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 18:54
  • 2
    So that's basically the story - we moderate Writers.SE to keep it on-topic, so the site remains a healthy, helpful resource for everybody. I know that can be frustrating when it means that you, personally, don't get answers you'd like - but I hope this makes sense and that you understand our rationale :)
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 18:57

3 Answers 3


Punctuation is a fluid thing in dialogue. There are rules you have to abide by just so readers have a basic understanding, but it can also be used in a variety of ways to communicate the sound of the dialogue that you want to get across.

  1. A semi-colon combines two related but effectively separate sentences. In dialogue, people don't do this--they either turn it into one sentence or naturally break it into two. (A colon there works to flow the two sentences together. You could even use an ellipsis or an em-dash.)

  2. An em-dash is a longer pause, with more emphasis; a comma is a shorter pause. Either one works. (In this situation: I'd go with an em-dash, since the sentence obviously has some weight to it--in an argument--and the dash helps with that.)

  3. "I mean" is a filler thing that people say to balance out the rhythm of their speech, and almost never part of the actual sentence's meaning. So you need a comma after it.

  4. Italics or quotation marks can indicate a phrase that is used as a term with special meaning. It's your choice.

  5. The ellipsis takes the place of a period when it's used at the end of an incomplete sentence ("It's been...") to indicate a flow into another sentence. No full stop after the ellipsis. Em-dashes are also an option, or mixing em-dashes and ellipses.

  6. No.

  7. Semi-colons are a little more formal and it's up to you whether you want to use them here or use something else. See point 1.

  8. Yes.

  9. Quotations go in quotation marks. It should be "...to 'throw up' every time...".

  10. Em-dashes. Em-dashes are used, like parentheses, to enclose phrases that aren't necessary but are related to the sentence. Ellipses aren't used for that purpose.

I hope that helps, but if you have many more questions about punctuation throughout your book, I strongly suggest investing in a copy-editor. If you really plan on self-publishing it, and want it to be successful, an editor will help give your work more polish.

Self-publishing companies often offer editing packages, and there are freelance editors (but be careful, of course).

  • Hi Yee-Lum, Thank you so much for taking the time to answer - all your answers make sense and are extremely useful! Greatly appreciated.
    – MoniqueH
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 4:16

I'll provide an answer to your very first example which I believe will provide guidance to all of your punctuation questions.

Consider what punctuation is

It is a way to indicate to the reader that there are pauses in the spoken language. Originally all text was slammed together like:


Orators had difficulty remembering where to pause and thus punctuation was born.

A comma means halfstop and a period means fullstop. Whatever that means.

Whatever Is Easiest To Read

So, the point is, do whatever helps your reader to read your story, article, etc in such a way that they do not stumble over your sentences.

Common Usage

Generally that means:

Adhere to common usage.

Whatever that means.

The Plight of the Semicolon

Most readers do not understand semicolons and it just makes them pause and think:

What did the writer mean here?

When readers pause when reading our text they may stop reading forever. That's why you should make it as simple as possible, but no simpler. (invoking Einstein here).

Your First Example

"Those things I said; I didn’t mean a word of it."

Readers understand periods far better than semicolons.

So, keep it simple and just make it two sentences.

What If Someone Spoke Those Sentences In Real Life?

You'd probably think they spoke two sentences, because you wouldn't differnetiate a halfstop of semicolon from a fullstop of a period.

So, since that is the sound you want to create in the user's head without her having to stop and think about what you meant, go ahead and just make it two sentences.

Summary of Keeping It Simple

Let this type of sound guide you in all of your punctuation and I think you will find it far easier and you will use less punctuation symbols and your readers will read more of your writing.

  • I'd argue with the premise that punctuation is a way to indicate pauses. Instead, punctuation provides clarification and structure for your sentences. Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 17:54
  • No need to argue. :) This is what we in the bidness call: exaggerated summary. How you like my use of colon? If you want to read more, try this article: grammar.about.com/od/punctuationandmechanics/a/… or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punctuation and you'll see that a lot of it originated from times when readers were going to read aloud and got lost easily.
    – raddevus
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 21:00
  • And check this one out, the book English Grammar Demystified makes an example very similar to mine. books.google.com/… That's cool, no? Si, es hace frio!
    – raddevus
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 21:08
  • 1
    Hi SaberWriter, thank you so much for your thoughtful answer! I think I had a lightbulb moment when reading it. I've been so caught up in making sure every punctuation mark was perfect to the point where it's making my writing less readable and SIMPLE! You are absolutely right about that point; readers have to be able to follow the story without being distracted by punctuation. I am going to go through my whole 140,000 words with this in mind. Thank you greatly! Monique
    – MoniqueH
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 4:18

"Those things I said; I didn't mean any of it."

(Off-topic, maybe, but I'd go w/ "...didn't mean any of THEM." since THINGS is plural.)

As has been mentioned, a semi-colon divides two independent clauses. That means that you COULD use a period in the same position.

So a semicolon is not correct for what(I think) you mean here. "Those things I said," is only a complete sentence if you intend to say "I said those things," just as you COULD put the object(THINGS) first in a sentence such as "To market we go." Yoda does it all the time, so it must be right.;)

But if you intend for your entire sentence to MEAN "I didn't mean those things I said."(subject is I, THINGS is the object, & the phrase I SAID modifies THINGS) then you should go w/ comma or ellipses or possibly em-dash...OR just reword the sentence to say "I didn't mean those things I said."

  • Thanks Michelle, I'm learning that sometimes there are more than one option and that making sure it's readable and enjoyable to read is sometimes more important than the perfect punctuation mark. Many thanks,
    – MoniqueH
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 4:20

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