Can I interject something here?

; – … (-),

I can’t stand it! Writing is hard, even when you understand the rules; when to obey them, when to bend them, when to break them. Lately, what has gotten under my skin, crawled into my brain, and just about driven me crazy is the punctuation that I should use when interjecting a thought, comment, or clarification into the middle of a sentence.

If there were hard and fast rules on how to do it (perhaps on the internet), I could just look them up and follow them. Alternatively, if every author I like to read followed them – like Stephen King or Dean Koontz – I would know what to do just by osmosis. Can you see where I’m going with this?

The problem is, I’ll be humming along, putting words on paper and suddenly, an important something comes along that needs to be interjected… not at all like this drivel here… and I just can’t decide on what punctuation to use. It is driving me crazy!

I swear; I bet a full one-third of my self-editing is the result of changing the !*%#!! punctuation under circumstances – ridiculous, I know! – where I just cannot decide which little black squiggles on the paper do the job better.

So I’m going to have a poll. I hope a good mix of writers and readers will take part.

How should the following sentence be punctuated?

Elsa didn’t hesitate she never hesitated when a life was threatened but her subconscious was already storing up the guilt she would feel when the killing was over.

Comments are welcome at the bottom… even lectures from English majors! 🙂 Please share with others who might be interested in weighing in on the discussion.


Filed under Writing

14 responses to “Can I interject something here?

  1. Hmmm, I’m answering here not the poll because I can’t decided on one option either.

    My first reaction was to go for the version with separate sentences. That said, my normal writing style is probably to use the first version with the hyphens, but I can also see myself using the ellipses.

    The semicolons don’t feel write to me. And obviously by that, I mean ‘right’. But I thought you might appreciate the accidental pun.

  2. Tanja

    I’ve voted for full sentences (call it the purist in me), but in fact, I’d probably do something a mixture like. “Elsa didn’t hesitate. She never hesitated when a life was threatened, but her subconscious was already storing up the guilt she would feel when the killing was over.”

    Alternatively, if it was REALLY important that the clause in the middle come off as an interjection, I’d probably opt for dashes.

  3. Joy

    I’m the first to admit I use a lot of hyphens. I don’t remember when I started writing that way but the first time I got called on it was when I took an English Comp course in college with a focus on the autobiography. My professor told me that my usage of it wasn’t always proper but it was my style of writing and my voice. So I’m not sure there’s a “right” way. Forcing yourself into one or the other might cause your writing to lose authenticity. And I make no apologies to the grammar police 🙂

  4. Victoria Herrington

    I added another option (parenthesis instead of commas) only because that’s a personal habit. I’ve been accused of over-using those and quote marks. But of the options you provided I really like the commas the best. I think the flow of the sentence is smoother with commas, while creating a short pause for the interjected thought. The other options seem too “cut up” to me.

  5. I agree with Tanja’s interpretation by using 2 sentences.

  6. The example I gave is just that, an example created to generate discussion. I’ve been noticing this while reading other people’s writing and I’m surprised at the variation. There really doesn’t seem to be a right way, which, as a new writer, results in me worrying over it more. In the end, I think I come up with something that satisfies me, but it isn’t often easy, and interrupts the flow of my writing.

    • I learned much of my writing from teachers who maintain that there often *isn’t* a correct way of writing something (OK, yes, sometimes there is, but far less often than most purists maintain)

      As far as those teachers are concerned, there are more often just effective and ineffective ways – or sometimes even just more effective and less effective ways – ways of writing.

      Effective writing is writing that your intended audience can easily read. It’s writing that’s clear and unambiguous. It’s also writing that doesn’t distract readers from the messages you want to communicate (what you write) because it doesn’t meet their expectations (how you write). Beyond that, it’s often just a question of personal – or house – style, and figuring out what your intended reader audience uses.

      When it comes to parentheses versus en-dashes versus em-dashes versus ellipses for interjections, I think it’s definitely a matter of style. As you can see above, I tend to use dashes, with the occasional parentheses for variety. Some publications mandate which you should use. Some readers will feel that the different ways of punctuating have different connotations for how closely the interjection is related to the main point of the sentence. Some will even have a hierarchy – conscious or subconscious – of relationship closeness for each punctuator.

      But most readers won’t care, unless you use interjections too often. Because that’s the point where they start becoming distracting (which mine probably have by the time you get to the end of this reply!)

      • There was such clarity in your explanation! 🙂 It is clear that a writer has to stay on his toes – in regards to how, and how often – he (or she) uses interjections.

  7. Ken

    I’d vote for none of the above, but close to the first option, except use em-dashes and no space surrounding them.

  8. It’s not a straightforward answer. Of the different methods of punctuation you’ve shown, several are commonly used. I’ve used a few of these punctuation methods in my different novels, which is why I say each of my novels is different in story and writing style. A writer would use one particular punctuation method over another depending on the story they’re writing, and how they want to write it.

    Grammatically speaking, the use of the semi-colon conforms to rules of grammar, although there shouldn’t be a semi-colon before the word but. (Re: referencing an English grammar rules guide). This also applies to the use of the dash, although as per the rules of grammar referenced it should be two dashes, or one long dash — differentiating between the dash used in hyphenation and the dash used for a break in thought (or interjecting of a thought). But who likes grammar anyway…?

    The ellipses (…) aren’t something I use myself in this usage. Perhaps after, “Elsa didn’t hesitate…” for the pause in it. However I wouldn’t use them before and after the thought which has been interjected.

    I was reading a book of JK Rowling’s not long ago and she was adamant in using semicolons and colons; at times they were used progressively in the same passage. It creates a different look on the page: one hopes the reader appreciates it. (A grammar Nazi might argue the use of a colon in my last sentence, but who likes Nazi’s?)

  9. I like the comma option, not just because I think it’s right, but because I feel it allows for a more fluid thought. I have nothing against the others (I am notorious for parenthetical statements), but it change on a case by case basis. Here the thought is an ‘aside’ but not necessarily a uniquely separable thought, so I’d weave it in with commas.

  10. I struggle with punctuation, too. Punctuation changes constantly and people follow different rules; AP, MLA or Chicago Manual.

  11. Alex

    Why are you people voting for comma splices?! There’s a clear indication that proper writing has gone out the window.

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