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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

About commas, semicolons, quotation marks and italics

Q: I have a quick writing question regarding commas. Perhaps you can help me.

Should it be "Is he okay?" the police officer asked genuinely concerned.


"Is he okay?" the police officer asked, genuinely concerned.

How about this one: "Seriously?" I replied, disappointed in how things were turning out.


"Seriously?" I replied disappointed in how things were turning out.

For some reason, I always want to put a comma in such situations. Is there a handy dandy rule to help guide me?

A: Golly, I hate to be a grammarian and quote rules, but here’s the rule you’re looking for: Use a comma with nonessential clauses and phrases. If you can take out the information and not change the meaning of the sentence, use a comma. Here are some examples of commas setting off nonessential phrases:

She introduced her husband, David. (We can have only one spouse, so the name is nonessential.)

The house, which had been vacant for a year, needed paint. (The phrase in the middle can be deleted, and the meaning is the same.)

"How long have you lived here?" I asked, wondering where I had seen him before. (The reason for asking is nonessential in this case.)

Q: When is it okay to use semicolons in fiction? How often is too often?

A: Grammar rules annoy me, because they are formal and aloof sounding, but here goes: Semicolons link independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction. The clauses semicolons join should be closely related in meaning.

Examples: In some places fishing is not merely a sport; it also sustains life. Give Harry a hand; he cannot haul in the anchor by himself.

Semicolons allow authors to change their sentence lengths, so that the work does not have too many short, choppy sentences. When semicolons link too many compound sentences, though, the rhythm becomes too similar, and some sentences should be cut into two.

How do you know when you have overused semicolons? If you see more than one on a page, chances are you have overused them. I’d rather see only one every two or three pages.

Q: In a children's chapter book, how should I punctuate a sound, such as whoosh, bam, kerplunk, splat, or crunch? Is it written as dialogue?

A: The imitation of sounds in words, also called onomatopoeia, can be written in italics, quotation marks, or plain text, as long as it is handled consistently throughout the manuscript. The Chicago Manual of Style does not address the issue, but the Encarta English Dictionary uses quotation marks for "hiss" and "buzz," when describing onomatopoeia.

Q: What do you call the use of inflections in a character’s voice to indicate emotion? For instance, someone may say, "I know that. I read myyyyyyy owner’s maaaaaaaaaaanuel." Or maybe he would raise and lower his voice three notes for a single-syllable word, such as in "I--I---I got it for free." See, I can’t even figure out how to write it. I know someone who speaks this way, and the effect is to dismiss you or put down your question or comment as silly or stupid. You must have heard of this type of inflection before.

A: The question refers to emphasis, and Chicago Style allows for some emphasis to be shown through italics, such as the following: "I know that. I read the manual."

The better way to show emphasis, though, is through word choice, rather than italics, which often get overused. A holier-than-thou attitude can be shown clearly by rewriting the dialogue into something like this: "I know that. Unlike you, I read the manual."

Folks, I need your questions, to keep this column going. Send your questions to today! —Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, freelance writer and author of "Write In Style: Using Your Word Processor and Other Techniques to Improve Your Writing," published by Union Square Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster. Send your questions to the book doctor at



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