It is remarkable how much personality a simple punctuation mark conveys.
An exclamation mark suggests a giggling schoolgirl: ‘Oh how funny it was!!!” Of course, the irony of the exclamation mark is that it quickly strips a funny anecdote of its humour. No reader likes to be told, You must find this funny, Ja?!
The ‘dot, dot, dot’ has the giggling schoolgirl about it too. Overdramatic and a bit uncool. It reminds us of the Mamma Mia diary script, when ‘dot, dot, dot’ is archly used to indicate that the mother has had sex. It also sits comfortably in the toolbox of the ghost-story writer. Then it adds a hammy frisson to the proceedings: And then the door creaked open … If they had only known what horrors lay in store …
The colon and the semicolon lie at the other end of the spectrum. Writers of popular fiction tend to avoid both of them in case they confer a stuffy or uncreative texture to their work. I have to admit that I have an affection for them, but the semicolon is widely considered to be a tad academic and old-fashioned, and the colon feels clinical (or maybe I’m just reacting to the word) – and it has widely given way to the dash.
I am in two minds about the dash. I’ll never forget a writing teacher telling me to ‘Cut the dashes, Wanda.’ I am still uncertain whether she asked me to do so because the dash is still considered in some circles as ‘not quite the ticket’ ̶ something a little bit vulgar and new ̶. or because my dashes spoiled the flow.
Writers are increasingly fond of the dash. And, yes, it can be a neat and useful way of slipping a parenthetical thought into a sentence, or of amplifying a thought that appears in the previous part of your sentence. However, I’d say beware: although not now viewed as uncouth, it has become a favoured tool of the sloppy writer.
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy