When it comes to punctuation, there’s a difference between formal prose and creative writing. Readers rely on formal prose for information; the purpose of every comma and dash should be clear and unambiguous. In creative writing, emotions matter.
In other words, how does that comma make you feel?
Fact versus Fiction
I like hats and that’s a fact. I’m shy, and the brim of my hat gives me just enough cover when I venture out among other people. I also take a book with me. (If I could take these parentheses, I would.)
This presents a conundrum. I don’t want to draw attention to myself,* yet someone inevitably makes a comment about my hat.
There are many ways to mention a hat, but let’s imagine a simple, straightforward compliment:
“That hat looks good on you.”
A similarly structured sentence in formal, nonfictional prose would rarely benefit from additional punctuation: This compound dissolves readily in water. To add a comma or other mark would be to open the door to ambiguity and, therefore, doubt. In chemistry, we don’t want any doubt.
But there will always be some doubt about a compliment posing as a fact, in fiction as in real life. I’m only human, so I will be looking for additional meaning. Any additional meaning will usually come from context. For example:
“That hat looks good on you,” he said. But he wasn’t looking at me when he said it.
That changes everything.
Say It with Punctuation
Many writers will stick to a spare punctuation style, letting the details of the narrative and dialogue do most of the work. But you always have the option of using punctuation for effect rather than simply to mark sentence structure. Like certain types of musical notation, this punctuation tells us how we might interpret (and, if necessary, speak) the text.
“That hat looks good, on you.”
That comma, by suggesting a small pause, alters the original meaning, but only a little. The speaker seems to be saying that the hat is acceptable on me but wouldn’t suit someone else. Commas, however, are subtle—readers are apt to miss them—so it would be a good idea to signal in some additional way what you’re up to. For example:
“That hat looks good, on you,” he said.
“On me? So you don’t like it.”
Now the reader understands, from my response, that the pause didn’t go unnoticed.
Let’s try a dash:
“That hat looks good—on you.”
This dash is similar to the comma, but it’s much harder to miss. Add italics for even more emphasis: “That hat looks good—on you.” Clearly, I’m the only one who should wear this hat. Dashes—and the shifts and interruptions that they represent on the page—are eminently suited to dialogue.
Now let’s try adding an extra period:
“That hat looks good. On you.”
So I can wear an ugly hat. Thanks, I guess. (A period is even more abrupt than a dash.)
What about ellipses?
“That hat looks good . . . on you.”
Uh oh. What, exactly, does that mean? . . . At first I thought you were complimenting me, but before I could finish blushing, you pulled the compliment out from under my feet. And why are you taking so much time to think about it? What is it that you’re not telling me . . . ?†
You could also try a semicolon or even a colon, but I wouldn’t. Neither mark would make much sense, especially not in dialogue. But let’s have a look just for fun:
“That hat looks good; on you.”
OK, that’s not totally useless. It suggests a kind of formal afterthought—like the comma but with more going on. But it will probably fail with readers; so maybe don’t.‡
“That hat looks good: on you.”
Could you manage to communicate such a colon to your interlocutor? I couldn’t.
What about parentheses? But first, let’s convert the dialogue (where parentheses don’t normally belong) to narrative, by getting rid of the quotation marks:
That hat looks good (on him).
The parentheses add a touch of mystery to the narrator’s observation: The hat does look good, though I should add that my observation is limited to how it looks on him. Or something like that.
You can also adjust the punctuation at the end of the sentence.
“That hat looks good on you!”
Um, thank you. (You sound sincere, but remember I’m shy.) Or,
“That hat looks good on you?”
If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep it to yourself.
As you can see, some of these experiments were more successful than others. And in most cases, context will do much more than punctuation possibly could. Still, if you’re tempted to add a mark, read the text out loud and see how it feels. Or check the rules (see chapter 6 in CMOS). Then go with what works.
* For this reason, I prefer hats without team logos or anything else that might inspire passion.
† As linguist Gretchen McCulloch has shown, ellipses can mean different things to different people (particularly in text messages). See Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019), 112–13.
‡ The semicolon in this example (like the period in the earlier example) breaks with present-day convention, whereby a semicolon, like a period, is supposed to intervene only between two independent clauses; “on you,” a prepositional phrase, isn’t even a clause. See CMOS 6.56.
Top image: Andrée in a Hat, Reading (Andrée en chapeau, lisant), Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ca. 1918. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Russell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.