Okay, another bad pun. Sorry about that.
English punctuation has a sliding scale of stopping power. From the gentle lift-off-the-accelerator of a comma to the stomp-on-the-brakes of a period (and its relatives, the question mark and exclamation point), a full range of pauses is at your command. Let’s look at each one, shall we?
We’ve spent several sessions on the comma, which can be used to indicate the briefest of pauses or simply to provide clarity. Commas give you a chance to take a quick breath and let you know when you need to watch for a minor change in direction or a lower speed limit.
Next up you’ll find the paired punc, parentheses and dashes. Parentheses are so lackadaisical they must always be in pairs. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (the blue car). Notice the closing parenthesis at the end of the sentence. The closing punctuation, whether a comma, period, exclamation point, or question mark, goes outside the parentheses unless it belongs to the words inside. Fernando drives a Ferrari (the red car), while Sebastian drives a Red Bull (is that the blue car?). Yes, you need the question mark, close parenthesis, and the period.
If a sentence were the Indy 500, parentheses would be caution periods. The race goes on but not a lot happens. You can safely go for a hot dog and ignore what happens inside the parentheses or during the caution. Some publishers prefer to have no parentheses in fiction.
Because the dash is so noticeable, use it with care. Make sure the information it encloses is something you want to emphasize.
Finally, the colon (:) is a red flag. It yells, “STOP THE RACE. PAY ATTENTION. SOMETHING BIG IS GOING ON.” The colon usually prefaces “an element or series of elements amplifying or illustrating what has preceded the colon.” (CMOS 15, 6.65.) I used the colon in this way in the fourth and seventh paragraphs in this post. In the UK it sometimes serves as an emphatic stop, but this use is generally not accepted in North America. The colon is seldom used in most modern fiction.
To sum up: to go from 60 mph to a standstill, use a comma, then a semi-colon, parentheses, dashes, colon, and period.
Enjoy the race!
Cranky Old Grammar Lady, aka Nikki Andrews, is an editor at Champagne Books and a writer of mysteries and scifi. Visit her blog here for more grammar fun.