7 Module 2: The Words We Are, The Stories We Tell

Module Introduction

This module discusses the stories we tell to make sense of the world. The importance of storytelling to human existence is explained. Narration is then introduced as another word for this storytelling, and its connection to other academic writing and description is discussed. Examples are provided of perspective and point-of-view, and the primary components of narrative writing (characters, conflict, and purpose) are introduced to help writers begin constructing their own stories. Chronological order, the ordering of events through time, is explained, as is the concept of the flashback, jumping backwards in time. The prewriting strategies of questioning and freewriting are introduced as ways to generate ideas for a narrative. Outlining is emphasized as necessary for the construction of logical, cohesive papers. Finally, the importance of using transitions (joining words) to connect ideas when composing is discussed. (1)


Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

  • Explain what narration is and why it is central to human life
  • Identify fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as the complications involved in such distinctions
  • Explain the problem of perspective
  • Identify the primary elements of a narrative: character, conflict, and narrative purpose
  • Use chronological order and flashbacks to organize events in time
  • Use questioning and freewriting to generate ideas
  • Use outlining to prepare a narrative paper
  • Compose a narrative piece of writing
  • Use transitions to tie events together (1)


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Lecture Content

ENC1101 Learning Unit 2

Our Selves, Our Stories

Human beings are fundamentally storytelling creatures. Of all the ways we use words, perhaps the most important (and most typical) is to communicate who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Think of all the times you use words to convey what has happened to you in a single day, even a single hour! Indeed, we spend most of our lives using our words to spin stories about ourselves; even our own sense of identity is a kind of story we tell ourselves to make sense of the world!

Because using words to tell stories is so fundamental to our everyday experience, narration , a fancy word for storytelling, is the perfect place to start our composition course in earnest. For many students, a narrative essay, one which requires to writer to tell a story of some sort, is the most comfortable and enjoyable kind of assignment to tackle. This is especially true if you are interested in creative writing or have aspirations of publishing short stories, screenplays, or novels. Aside from being a familiar and creative kind of writing, narration is also a key component in many other kinds of essay writing, and as the course continues you’ll see that narration comes in handy when you are trying to come up with interesting hooks to start papers or are looking to explain specific points about a topic with examples that help your reader understand your point of view. Finally, the kind of writing we did in the last module, description , the translation of the senses into words, plays a key part in all types of narrative writing; after all, to tell a good story, you have to provide details that help your reader become immersed in the world you are creating. (1)

Fiction, Nonfiction, and the Problem of Perspective

Before we begin discussing how to construct an effective narrative, we need to consider an important distinction that humans have to make when it comes to storytelling: the difference between nonfiction, or writing that purports to be true or “real,” and fiction, or writing that announces itself as a fabrication, a “made-up” story told by the author to entertain or to make a hypothetical (believable yet fictional) point.

At first glance, this distinction might seem easy to make. However, the words we use are never equivalent to the world we experience; in some sense, whenever we tell a story, we are fabricating what happened. If we could simply communicate events as they happened, we wouldn’t need words at all! This is why there are so many arguments about news stories and the meaning of current events; we all recognize that any act of recalling what has happened is fraught with the problem of perspective , the point-of-view or position of the storyteller.

As we’ll see in later modules, the problem of perspective is something that always haunts the composition classroom and writing in general, so it’s important that we recognize the issue here at the beginning.

Philosophers have argued about the problems of language and truth since the dawn of civilization, and their battles rage on to this day. For the purpose of this module, however, we will have to accept that what we mean by nonfiction writing is storytelling that presumes to adhere to the world as it happened to the author or other humans and fiction writing as storytelling that makes no such presumptions about its literal truth .

Because all storytelling, be it fiction or nonfiction writing, is always caught up in the problem of perspective, the point-of-view of the writer, it is important to clarify exactly how this positioning makes itself known in a piece of writing.

Consider the following passage from a story:

I couldn’t make out the shape in front of me; all I knew was that it made me at once weak-kneed and furious. A cold sliver of something shot through my shoulder muscles, and I collapsed in a heap. My head was reeling, my heart was racing, my mouth hung open in shock. This, this was what I had feared all along.

Note that this passage uses first person pronouns (I, me, my) to convey the interior state of the author herself; it thus provides a first-person point-of-view . In doing so, it reveals theemotional state the author finds herself in (she is “weak-kneed and furious,” feels “a cold sliver of something,” experiences shock, and comes to understand what fear feels like); we thus could also say that it is a subjective perspective : a story that openly reveals the personal, emotional, singular experience of the writer in question. Such subjective perspectives often rely upon colorful descriptive language (many adjectives and adverbs) and surprising comparisons to establish their truths and engage the audience. Creative storytelling, whether its fiction or nonfiction, often relies upon such subjective perspectives to establish the emotional, spiritual conditions under which a character lives.

Now consider the following passage:

The incident occurred at 3:15 EST. The blonde female in question had brown hair, was approximately 5’3”and 115 pounds, and wore beige, knee-length pants, a light-blue shirt, and brown flats. Upon seeing Officer Wilson, she shrugged her shoulders and fell to her knees. She remained in a kneeling position for several minutes thereafter and exhibited signs of shock: her pupils dilated and her lower jaw dropped open.

In contrast to the first passage, this one is told from the third-person perspective ; it uses the third-person pronouns “she” and “her” as well as the noun “female” to discuss the main character from the outside as she appears to other people. This passage is also an example of an objective perspective , one that strives to be as factual and unbiased (unemotional and even-handed; fair) as possible in order to construct a believable reality free from emotion. Much academic and professional writing is expected to be objective in order to establish trust with the reader and seek a truth that can be agreed-upon, not dictated by personal bias or emotional assumptions.

Whenever you set out to write a narrative, then, you need to consider what perspective is most appropriate to tell your tale. Will you use a first-person narrator who will disclose his deepest personal feelings about the world? Will tell your story from the third-person, watching as the characters take action? Keep in mind that third-person stories can be subjective; you’ve likely read a short story or novel told from the third-person but full of colorful and emotional language. As we’ve seen, though, many third-person stories are objective and so can be very neutral and clinical: think of a news report for the Associated Press or the recounting of an experiment for a science journal. Whatever the case, it’s up to you to decide from which position your story should be told. (1)

Two Elements that Make a Story Click

Every effective story has two key elements: character and conflict. Characters are the people that populate the world a writer creates. Conflict is what happens to those characters, the catalyst for their actions. Without characters, a world would have no actors; without conflict, characters would have no reason to take action.

Though a creative writing instructor would likely take issue with this simplification, for the sake of this class characters can be broken down into three types: main characters, side characters, and extras.

Main characters are the people on which a story centers, and a writer signals their importance by providing the most details about them, including what they look like, what they say, and possibly how they think or feel (depending upon how subjective the story’s perspective is). Remember that a main character may even be the person telling the story if the writer is using the first-person perspective.

Side characters often accompany the main character as important acquaintances, friends, or enemies. Writers provide enough details about them for them to come alive, but they don’t get as much attention as the main characters. They are often essential to the conflict, however; for example, often the main character has an enemy who is a side character but whose presence forces the main character to take action.

Extras help fill out the world of a narrative, but they are just window-dressing. They appear in the background at parties or on busy city streets or in office settings. They are not important to the story’s conflict, though they may be affected by it (think of all the extras in a Hollywood movie who run screaming from a giant monster’s attack in a movie likeGodzilla ).

A story’s conflict is the struggle that the main character must endure as the story proceeds, the obstacle that he or she must overcome. This conflict could involve another character, such as in classic confrontations of heroes and villains (Batman fighting the Joker or Captain America confronting the Red Skull). However, main characters may also experience less aggressive conflicts, such as facing a fear, performing a task, surviving a hostile environment, interviewing for a job, enduring a medical issue, or winning the heart of a love interest. Before you write your narrative, you need to have a clear understanding of what this conflict is so that you can build to a climactic moment when the conflict is resolved and the story’s purpose is revealed. (1)

Narrative Purpose: Why Readers Love It When a Plan Comes Together

A story is interesting only insofar as it has some reason to exist. Conflicts get a story moving and give characters something to do, but the overall reason behind the story reveals itself when the conflict is resolved. Maybe a writer wants to show the importance of sticking with something, no matter how hard it seems; maybe he or she wants to emphasize the difficulty of loyalty or the insanity of the modern workplace. This purpose can be funny or moving, and a story doesn’t have to convey some deep moral message to be effective. However, a writer needs to consider how and why the conflict will resolve and what the implications of that resolution will be. This purpose is usually left unstated in narratives; readers don’t like to be told what to think, so you shouldn’t say something like, “The moral of this story is . . . .” Still, try to make it a point to write out the purpose in advance for yourself so you know what you are doing. This purpose statement might end up being slightly off the mark after the whole story comes together, especially since characters often have a way of taking on a life of their own and “doing” things the writer didn’t expect. Still, having some idea where the story is going is essential to avoiding writer’s block (when you get stuck and don’t know what else to write) and keeping your narrative focused. (1)

Chronological Order: Tracking a Conflict through Time

Once you’ve figured out who your characters are, what your central conflict will be, and why you are telling your story (what its purpose is), you are just about ready to draft your story. However, you still need to figure out how you are going to organize your ideas into a cohesive narrative, and this crucial final step is actually a question of when: when does your story start, when does the climactic moment occur, and when does it end?

Because narratives chronicle events that happen to characters, they obviously track time. The organizational strategy that recounts a story as it occurs in time is called chronological order : typically, a narrative essay structured chronologically proceeds from the beginning of the story, the earliest important event, to its end, the final moment of the tale.

This sounds simple, but a writer must make many important decisions in order for chronological order to be an effective organizing tool, especially when he or she is writing a short essay. Perhaps most importantly, a writer must remember that a good story starts as close to the climactic moment of the conflict as possible in order to be concise and consistently interesting.

For example, imagine that you are writing a story about betrayal: in it, the main character discovers that her best friend has been seeing her boyfriend behind her back. The climactic moment of the story is to take place at a party on a Saturday night. In order to be as concise, you decide to tell the story over the course of a single day, starting when the main character wakes up in the morning. Then you take the reader through the day, recounting the character’s breakfast, her morning workout, her lunch, her afternoon workout, her brief shopping excursion . . .

Wait! Even though this sounds reasonable, is it really concise enough? Do all of these events serve to set up the party where the conflict will resolve? Do we really need to know about the character’s breakfast and lunch? Maybe, so long as these events somehow relate to the main character’s relationship with her friend (perhaps she meets the friend for lunch or even spends the day with her). However, if these moments are disconnected from the story’s turmoil, if they just fill up space by describing moments in time, then they aren’t necessary.

Now imagine an alternate strategy. Perhaps the writer decides to start the story in the early evening on that fateful Saturday, right before the main character (let’s call her Susan) leaves for the fateful party. As Susan is getting dressed, she is recounting past moments she has spent with her best friend (let’s call her Debbie), and these moments all emphasize the intense bond the two have forged together (each moment thus relating to the purpose of the story, the betrayal that the conflict will reveal). Now the story is truly starting very close to its climax, and every part serves the larger whole.

In addition, this example introduces the concept of flashbacks , moments within a chronology that jump backwards in time. In this story, these flashbacks occur as instances of Susan’s memory and are interspersed with the linear moments she is preparing for the party. Not all flashbacks have to be memories, though; if you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show that plays around with time, such as when a serialized TV show begins by showing a beloved central character in a dangerous situation that hasn’t been explained, you know how interesting it can be for a story to start at a climactic moment and then jump back to the beginning in order to catch the audience up with the action. (1)

Prewriting Strategies: Questioning and Freewriting

In the last module, we discussed listing as a prewriting strategy for descriptive writing, and it’s one that works very well for narrative writing, as well. However, perhaps the most natural kind of prewriting for storytelling is called questioning because it forces a writer to think about all of the important elements of a narrative by asking the classic “reporter’s questions: ”who, what, when, where, why, and how . In fact, it’s impossible to put a narrative together without preliminarily asking at least some of these questions before you get started! Consider the following questions, for example:

  • Who is the main character in the story?
  • What is the story’s conflict?
  • When does the story take place?
  • Where does the action happen?
  • Why are you telling the story? (what is its main purpose)
  • How does the story end?

Once you’ve answered at least some of these questions, another helpful prewriting strategy that many writers use is freewriting . This is when you set a time limit (usually around ten minutes) and write whatever comes to mind about your story (it’s useful to do a bit of questioning first so you at least know who your main character is and what the conflict will be, but it’s possible to freewrite without any predetermined ideas, too, just to see what you come up with). This is also called stream-of-consciousness writing , and it’s important to note that this is not like drafting the actual story, although you may use some of the stuff you come up with when you put the paper together. This kind of writing is meant to be totally free and disorganized; you don’t worry about spelling, grammar, organization, or even logic. You just let yourself write, and when the time period is up, you look back at what you’ve come up with and see if anything useful has been created. Some writers freewrite multiply times, picking up certain ideas from one freewriting session and using them as the basis for another until they’ve come up with plenty of material that they can hammer into shape as an actual draft.

Whether you use a combination of listing, questioning, and freewriting or just one such strategy, make sure to do some initial creative work before you start planning your essay so you have a general idea of what your story is about to avoid getting stuck! (1)

Planning Your Narrative: The Imperative of Using an Outline

Once your prewriting is finished and you’ve figured out all the primary elements of your story, you might think you are ready to draft. However, there is still one more essential step you need to follow before drafting should happen: outlining.

Many students balk at using an outline; they often complain that outlining makes them feel boxed-in or that their writing is over-determined. In the academic and professional worlds, though, organization and logic are everything . Even a paper with relatively weak, uninspiring subject matter can be elevated if all of its ideas are logically presented and connected. Outlines ensure that papers have this underlying logic and structure. What many students don’t like about outlines is that they force writers to develop a kind of skeleton for their papers that holds them together, and creating this kind of infrastructure takes concentration and a critical eye.

Outlining helps differentiate freewriting from drafting . As we just learned, freewriting is completely free-form writing. When you freewrite, you never worry about structure: you just record your thoughts. Drafting, on the other hand, is the meticulous construction of a paper based on already established ideas that have been thoughtfully joined together in advance . This thoughtfulness is articulated in the planning stage between prewriting and drafting and usually takes the form of an outline that establishes the organizational structure of the paper.

In each of the modules going forward you’ll be presented with an outline appropriate for the rhetorical mode (kind of writing) that you will be working on. As we have already discussed, narrative writing, this module’s focus, is organized through time chronologically . Because of the possibility of flashbacks, this doesn’t mean that a narrative essay has to proceed linearly from beginning to end, though many simple narratives do just that.

In most of the modules going forward you’ll be presented with suggestions for how to develop an outline that is appropriate for the rhetorical mode (kind of writing) that you will be working on. As we have already discussed, narrative writing, this module’s focus, is organized through time chronologically. Because of the possibility of flashbacks, this doesn’t mean that a narrative essay has to proceed linearly from beginning to end, though many simple narratives do just that. Whatever the case, though, we know the following things about narrative structure:

Whatever the case, though, we know the following things about narrative structure:

There are no rules for how many events to include in a narrative or for how many paragraphs a narrative (or any academic paper, for that matter) has to be. Thus, keep in mind that your outline can have as many major sections (designated by roman numerals) as you feel is necessary. Just make sure to adhere to the assignment’s word count! (1)

Before You Begin: A Note about Transitions and Connecting Ideas Together

As you draft your narrative, keep in mind that moving a story through time involves more than just placing one event after another; you need to use transitions , connecting words, to help transport your reader.


(1) Content by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License .

ENC1101 Learning Unit 2.2

Readings: the Words We Are, the Stories We Tell


In this module we discussed how to tell compelling stories. Before you start writing your own narrative paper, though, it can be helpful to look at someone else’s story to see how an effective narrative works. Thus, in this section you will find a piece of writing that exhibits all the elements of a classic narrative: it features a protagonist embroiled in a conflict and tells his story through time using chronological order. (1)

Professional Essay

Remember that for a narrative to connect with an audience it needs to use vivid details to bring a character to life as he or she has to overcome some kind of obstacle. It also has to clearly transport us through time as we follow the main character through to the resolution of this conflict. As you read the following story, ask yourself the following active reading questions to make sure you understand how the narrative is working and why it is effective:

  1. What is the essay’s central conflict ? Is it established early or late in the story?
  2. How does description function in the essay? Do the story’s descriptive details help us understand the protagonist and his overall purpose?
  3. How is the story organized ? Does it use transitions to help us navigate from beginning to end? Does it move back and forth in time?
  4. How does the essay’s conclusion resolve its conflict? (1)

Select and read this article, “Looking for My Father in the Atacama Desert” (1)

Reading Reflections: Professional Essay

Let’s reflect on the active reading questions we asked at the beginning to break the story down in detail. (1)

What is the essay’s central conflict? Is it established early or late in the story?

In the very first sentence of the first paragraph, the narrator (who is also the story’s central character or protagonist ) announces that he “never truly believed the stories my father told . . . about his adventurous youth .” He says he has trouble matching up the dad he knew and the one who appeared in his dad’s fanciful tales. After struggling with this lack of faith and fondly remembering nights he spent listening to his father’s stories, he announces his central purpose: “Some nights after my father’s burial, as I sat on the porch alone looking through pictures now yellowed and ragged, I decided to go in search of both men .” The “two men” he mentions here are opposing versions of his father: the “ neatly groomed man who wore a business suit every day except Saturday ” and “ the grinning, shaggy-headed chap featured in photographs of young men and muddy cars on road rallies in exotic, faraway places .” At this moment, we realize the story’s central conflict: the narrator wants to resolve the difference between these versions of his dad by following in his footsteps. He thus wants to better understand his father by setting off on his own journey to an “exotic, faraway” place. (1)

How does description function in the essay? Do the story’s descriptive details help us understand the protagonist and his overall purpose?

Looking back at the first paragraph again, we can see how the author uses description to make the narrator’s memories of his father come to life. Consider the vivid sensory details in the following passage:

After dinner, he and I would sit on the porch and watch the sun melt into the horizon. First, he would light a cigarette, filling the golden silence with the acrid scent of burning tobacco and dragon-like bursts of smoke from his nostrils. Before too long, he would open the evening’s tale with a curious observation, something like, “Did you know snake meat is very tender?” At first, his voice was the same carefully modulated baritone that negotiated profitable deals with customers who came into his antique shop in town. But then his tone would change, and I would hear that young man from the photos.

Here the author uses both smell (the “acrid scent of burning tobacco”)and sound (his father’s “carefully modulated baritone”) to make the narrator’s memories come to life, a savvy strategy given the important role both senses serve for human memory—think about how a cologne or perfume can transport you back to a faraway time or how hearing a recording makes the past come to life. In addition, the changing tone of his father’s voice is the very thing that makes the narrator suspect that there may be truth to his father’s words, so the descriptive details play a major role in establishing the story’s thematic purpose.

The story is in fact riddled with vivid descriptive details from beginning to end. The second paragraph describes the narrator’s son sitting “cross-legged” and watching as his dad works on a car, surprised that his father, an accountant, is doing such mechanical work; at the same time, the narrator describes his own surprise at the experience by mixing the aches and pains of his body with the imagined specter of his own father:

In those moments when my neck and back ached from leaning over the engine to replace a piston or tighten a belt, it seemed my father was there with me, leaning against the fender and nodding in approval.

In this vivid moment we are presented with two sons encountering the mysteries of their fathers, building memories and encountering ghosts. The specific details, such as the way the son is sitting or the pains of the narrator’s body, bring us into the moment viscerally and also serve a larger purpose: indeed, as the narrator embarks on the quest for his father, he is also becoming like his father in relation to his own son, who is watching him much the way he used to watch his dad on the porch.

The third paragraph presents dialogue to emphasize dialect (the distinct way a person or group of people sound when they use language) to emphasize that the narrator has entered a world that has become increasingly alien to him:

The crew I hired to set up camp along the way encouraged me to buy a GPS unit. “Ees no seegnal,” they said, their heavily accented English warning me I could not call for help if I got lost or the car broke down.

The “heavily accented English” both literally warns him that he will be cut off from the rest of the world and figuratively reminds him that he is in a place where his own language is not primary: the details make clear that he is a stranger in a strange land.

In the next paragraph, the descriptive details help us understand the narrator’s plight when his car breaks down:

At high noon exactly, the Triumph’s radiator blew with a hiss and a pop. The car rolled to a stop, and I watched the plume of white steam disperse over the dry, cracked plateau. With temperatures near 45º C, I, too, felt ready to explode. I guzzled a bottle of water and then took a look at the radiator. Perspiration dripped into my eyes, and my hands were slick as I carefully poked and prodded the hoses and wires.

He doesn’t just say “my car broke down at noon the next day.” Instead we hear the radiator blow “with a hiss and a pop” and watch “the plume of white steam disperse over the dry, cracked plateau.” The author also merges the narrator’s emotional state with his physical plight by having him say that he felt “ready to explode” in the heat and then providing specific signs of distress: the narrator “guzzle[s]” water as he looks at the car’s radiator (thus linking man and machine), and “perspiration drip[s]” into his eyes. No detail is glossed over; the narrator never just says “I was hot” or “I was frustrated” because those summary explanations would not engage the reader or link the protagonist’s spirit with the details of his quest.

We are going to discuss the last paragraph when we get to question four, but for now consider the striking details related to the narrator’s physical appearance as they appear at the end of the story:

Beneath the dust, my face was sunburned. My hair stuck to my head in damp clumps. My eyes were bright with accomplishment, and my smile was almost as wide as the desert I was crossing.

Again, the author shows us what the narrator looks like so that we can fully experience his transformation, a change that is essential for us to recognize as the narrative’s conflict is resolved. (1)

How is the story organized? Does it use transitions to help us navigate from beginning to end? Does it move back and forth in time?

As we have seen, the first paragraph is mostly a memory of the narrator’s past, and what is being remembered (the narrator’s experiences as a child with his father) is the earliest chronological point in the story as well as functioning as the catalyst for the rest of the story’s action (the narrator’s memories of his father are the whole reason he sets out on the quest). For the most part, the story proceeds chronologically from there. Here are the transitions each paragraph (after the introduction) uses to help the reader understand what is happening:

Paragraph Two: “I spent a year restoring my father’s Triumph.” This sentence describes the lead-up to the race the narrator is going to participate in. During this time the narrator’s son watches him work on the car.

Paragraph Three: “Instead of joining my family for our usual summer holiday at the coast, I took the Triumph to South America to retrace my father’s favorite race circuit, a two-week rally that included a grueling stretch through Chile’s Atacama Desert.” This sentence establishes when the narrator participates in the race and obviously happens after he has worked on the car in the previous paragraph.

Paragraph Four: “Just as my father had done all those years ago, I navigated the route with a compass and map.” Now the narrator has joined the race. At this point the story becomes more specific and focuses on the time of the race itself as the action reaches its climax.

Paragraph Five: “Two hours later, none of my efforts had resolved the problem.” This transition is very specific; the narrator is in the midst of the race and at the most important point in his story. It places us two hours after the action of the previous paragraph, so we are very clear about when the last part of the story is happening.

Paragraph Six: “As the engine settled into a sluggish purr, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror.” This sentence places us right after the repairs performed in the previous paragraph. Since this last paragraph provides resolution for the whole story, it is very important that we know exactly when it is happening.

As for flashbacks, paragraph three presents us with a memory from the narrator’s past. It is triggered by the following transition: “A memory rolled in, and I recalled going with my father to buy a new car.” This flashback serves to emphasize just how much the narrator is haunted by the memory of his father and links that memory to the race he has just joined.(1)

How does the essay’s conclusion resolve its conflict?

As we have seen, the last paragraph is largely made up of descriptive details regarding the appearance of the narrator after participating in the race through Chile’s Atacama Desert. Besides just painting a vivid picture, these details are thematically important, as well. Specifically, when we see what the narrator now looks like (his sunburned face, sweaty hair, bright eyes, and big smile) we realize that he has transformed into the kind of person he used to see in his father’s old photographs he described for us at the beginning of the story (“the grinning, shaggy-headed chap” who was his father). At this moment, the protagonist has accomplished what he set out to do; he has discovered the truth his father’s two personas and so better understands who his dad was. He has also, in a sense, become his dad, for he, too, is a father who now is more than just an everyday businessman. He has thus resolved his search for the “two men” his dad once was and has discovered his own truth: that he, too, is both a family man and an adventurer. (1)


(1) Content by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License .

ENC1101 Learning Unit 2.3

Common Punctuation Marks

Now that we’ve learned about the different types of words, it’s time to learn about the rules of punctuation. These little marks can often be the cause of a lot of heartaches and headaches. Errors in punctuation can often result in unintended meanings. For example, consider the difference the comma makes in these two sentences:

  • Let’s eat, Grandpa.
  • Let’s eat Grandpa.

In the first instance, the writer is directly addressing his or her grandfather, and the comma indicates the separation between the suggestion being made and the addressee. In the second, however, grandfather is on the menu.

However, punctuation doesn’t exist simply as a puzzling set of rules for writers; in fact, it was created to help guide readers through passages—to let them know how and where words relate to each other. When you learn the rules of punctuation, you equip yourself with an extensive toolset so you can craft language to better communicate the exact message you want. (7)

End Punctuation

There are three punctuation marks that come at the end of a sentence: the period ( . ), the question mark ( ? ), and the exclamation point ( ! ). A sentence is always followed by a single space, no matter what the concluding punctuation is.


Periods indicate a neutral sentence (one that isn’t overly emotional or questioning anything), and as such they are by far the most common ending punctuation mark (they’ve been at the end of every sentence on this page so far). They occur at the end of statements. (8)

Question Marks

A question mark comes at the end of a question (“How was class today?”). Not all questions indicated by question marks are alike; for example, a rhetorical question is asked to make a point, and does not expect an answer. Some questions are used principally as polite requests (“Would you pass the salt?”).

All of these questions can be categorized as direct questions, and all of these questions require a question mark at the end. (9)

Indirect Questions

Indirect questions do not have question marks at the end. They can be used in many of the same ways as direct questions, but they often emphasize knowledge or lack of knowledge:

  • I can’t guess how Tamika managed it.
  • I wonder whether I looked that bad.
  • Cecil asked where the reports were.

Notice how different word order is used in direct and indirect questions; in direct questions the verb usually comes before the subject, while in indirect questions the verb appears second. (9)

Exclamation Points

The exclamation point is a punctuation mark usually used after an interjection or exclamation to indicate strong feelings or high volume, and it often marks the end of a sentence. You’ve likely seen this punctuation mark overused on the internet.

While you shouldn’t overuse exclamation points in academic or professional writing, there are appropriate ways and times to use them. A sentence ending in an exclamation mark may be an exclamation (such as “Wow!” or “Boo!”), may state an imperative (“Stop!”), or may indicate astonishment (“They were the footprints of a gigantic duck!”).

The exclamation mark is sometimes used in conjunction with the question mark. This can be in protest or astonishment (“Out of all places, the watering hole?!”).

Informally, exclamation marks may be repeated for additional emphasis (“That’s great!!!”), but this practice is generally considered only acceptable in casual or informal writing, such as text messages or online communication with friends and family. (10)


Perhaps the best and most instructive way for us to approach the comma is to remember its fundamental function: it is a separator. Once you know this, the next step is to determine what sorts of things generally require separation. This list of things that should be separated includes most transition words, descriptive words or phrases, adjacent items, and complete ideas (complete ideas are word groups that contain both a subject and a verb). Commas are also used to separate similar items in lists. (11) (12)

Transition Words

Transition words add new viewpoints to your material; commas before and after transition words help to separate them from the sentence ideas they are describing. Transition words tend to appear at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence:

  • Therefore , the natural gas industry can only be understood fully through an analysis of these recent political changes.
  • The lead prosecutor was prepared, however , for a situation like this.

Remember, these words require commas when they appear at the beginning or middle of a basic sentence that expresses a single idea. When they appear between two complete ideas, however, a period or semicolon is required beforehand:

  • Clint had been planning the trip with his kids for three months; however , when work called he couldn’t say no.
  • Sam was retired. Nevertheless , he wanted to help out.

As you can see from these examples, a comma is always required after transition words. (11) (12)

Descriptive Phrases

Descriptive phrases often need to be separated from the things that they describe. Descriptive phrases tend to come at the very beginning of a sentence, right after the subject of a sentence, or at the very end of a sentence:

  • Near the end of the eighteenth century, James Hutton introduced a point of view that radically changed scientists’ thinking about geologic processes.
  • James Lovelock, who first measured CFCs globally, said in 1973 that CFCs constituted no conceivable hazard.

In each example, the phrase separated by the comma could be deleted from the sentence without destroying the sentence’s basic meaning. (11) (12)

Commas in Lists

Perhaps one of the most hotly contested comma rules is the case of the serial comma . The serial comma is the comma before the conjunction ( and or , and nor ) in a series involving a parallel list of three or more things. For example, “I am industrious, resourceful, and loyal.” MLA style requires the use of the serial comma—AP style highly recommends leaving it out.

The serial comma can provide clarity in certain situations. For example, such a comma can help clarify a writer’s meaning if the and is part of a series of three or more phrases (groups of words) as opposed to single words:

  • Medical histories taken about each subject included smoking history, frequency of exercise, current height and weight, and recent weight gain.

The serial comma can also prevent the end of a series from appearing to be a parenthetical, which means a clarification of an idea that comes right before the comma:

  • I’d like to thank my sisters, Beyoncé and Rhianna.

Without the serial comma, it may appear that the speaker is thanking his or her two sisters, who are named Beyoncé and Rhianna (which could be possible, but isn’t true in this case). By adding the serial comma, it becomes clear that the speaker is thanking his or her sisters, as well as the two famous singers: “I’d like to thank my sisters, Beyoncé, and Rhianna.”

By always using a comma before the and in any series of three or more, you honor the distinctions between each of the separated items, and you avoid any potential reader confusion. (11) (12)



The apostrophe is used in combination with a “s” to represent that a word literally or conceptually possesses what follows it. Singular words, whether or not they end in s, are made possessive by adding an apostrophe + s. For plural words, we typically indicate possession simply by adding the apostrophe without an additional s. However, when dealing with a plural that does not end in an s (e.g., bacteria), we would add an apostrophe + s.

  • a student’s paper
  • one hour’s passing
  • Illinois’s law
  • interviewees’ answers
  • her professors’ office (an office shared by two of her professors; if it were just one professor we would write her professor’s office) (11) (12)


A contraction is a shortened phrase. He will becomes he’ll , are not becomes aren’t, would have becomes would’ve , and it is becomes it’s . In all of these cases, the apostrophe stands in for the missing letters.

You may find yourself being steered away from using contractions in your papers. While you should write to your teacher’s preference, keep in mind that leaving out contractions can often make your words sound overly formal and stilted. Also, you shouldn’t eliminate contractions in your papers just to up your word count!) (11) (12)

Your Versus You’re

  • Your vs. you’re
  • Its vs. it’s
  • Their vs. they’re

All three of these pairs are the same kind of pair: the first word in each example is a possessive pronoun and the second is a contracted version of a pronoun (you’re = you are; it’s = it is; they’re = they are) . These are easy to mix up (especially its/it’s) because—as we’ve learned—an apostrophe + s usually indicates possession. The best way to use these correctly is to remember that possessive pronouns (its, hers, his, ours, yours, theirs) never have an apostrophe: if there’s an apostrophe with a pronoun, it’s a contraction, not a possessive. (11) (12)

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are can be used in a number of ways. One way is fairly self-explanatory: you use quotation marks when you’re making a direct quote.

  • He said, “I’ll never forget you.” It was the best moment of my life.
  • Yogi Berra famously said, “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

Note that you usually put a comma right before a direct quotation if you first write out who is speaking.

If you’re just writing an approximation of something a person said, you would not use quotation marks:

  • She told me about Pizza, the three-toed sloth, yesterday.
  • He said that he would be late today.

Another way to use quotation marks is to call attention to a word. For example:

  • I can never say “Worcestershire” correctly.
  • How do you spell “definitely”?

Where do Quotation Marks Go?

Despite what you may see practiced, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. (The rules in British English are different, which may be where some of the confusion arises.)

  • Correct: The people of the pine barrens are often called “pineys.”
  • Incorrect: The people of the pine barrens are often called “pineys”.

The semicolon, colon, dash, question mark, and exclamation point can fall inside or outside of the quotation marks, depending on whether the punctuation is a part of the original quote:

  • This measurement is commonly known as “dip angle”; dip angle is the angle formed between a normal plane and a vertical.
  • Built only 50 years ago, Shakhtinsk—“minetown”—is already seedy.
  • When she was asked the question “Are rainbows possible in winter?” she answered by examining whether raindrops freeze at temperatures below 0°c. (Quoted material has its own punctuation.)
  • Did he really say “Dogs are the devil’s henchmen”? (The quote is a statement, but the full sentence is a question.) (11) (12)


Parentheses are most often used to identify material that acts as an aside (such as this brief comment) or to add incidental information.

Other punctuation marks used alongside parentheses need to take into account their context. If the parentheses enclose a full sentence beginning with a capital letter, then the end punctuation for the sentence falls inside the parentheses.

For example:

Typically, suppliers specify air to cloth ratios of 6:1 or higher. (However, ratios of 4:1 should be used for applications involving silica or feldspathic minerals.)

If the parentheses indicate a citation at the end of a sentence, then the sentence’s end punctuation comes after the parentheses are closed:

In a study comparing three different building types, respirable dust concentrations were significantly lower in the open-structure building (Hugh et al., 2005).

Finally, if the parentheses appear in the midst of a sentence (as in this example), then any necessary punctuation (such as the comma that appeared just a few words ago) is delayed until the parentheses are closed.

You can also use parentheses to provide acronyms (or full names for acronyms). For example, “We use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style guide here” or “The Modern Language Association (MLA) style guide is my favorite to use.”

Remember, parentheses always appear in pairs. If you open a parenthesis, you need another to close it! (11) (12)


An ellipsis (plural ellipses ) is a series of three periods.

As with most punctuation marks, there is some contention about its usage. The main point of contention is whether or not there should be a space between the periods (. . .) or not (…). MLA, APA, and Chicago , the three most common style guides for students, support having spaces between the periods. Others you may encounter, such as those guides used in journalism, may not. (13)

Quotes and Ellipses

You will primarily see ellipses used in quotes. They indicate a missing portion in a quote. Look at the following quote for an example:

“ Camarasaurus , with its more mechanically efficient skull, was capable of generating much stronger bite forces than Diplodocus . This suggests that Camarasauruswas capable of chomping through tougher plant material than Diplodocus , and was perhaps even capable of a greater degree of oral processing before digestion. This actually ties in nicely with previous hypotheses of different diets for each, which were based on apparent feeding heights and inferences made from wear marks on their fossilized teeth.”

“ Diplodocus seems to have been well-adapted, despite its weaker skull, to a form of feeding known as branch stripping, where leaves are plucked from branches as the teeth are dragged along them. The increased flexibility of the neck of Diplodocus compared to other sauropods seems to support this too.”

It’s a lengthy quote, and it may contains more information than you want to include. Here’s how to cut it down:

“ Camarasaurus , with its more mechanically efficient skull, was capable of generating much stronger bite forces than Diplodocus . This suggests that Camarasauruswas capable of chomping through tougher plant material than Diplodocus . . . . This actually ties in nicely with previous hypotheses of different diets for each, which were based on apparent feeding heights and inferences made from wear marks on their fossilized teeth.”

“ Diplodocus seems to have been well-adapted . . . to a form of feeding known as branch stripping, where leaves are plucked from branches as the teeth are dragged along them.”

In the block quote above, you can see that the first ellipsis appears to have four dots. (“This suggests that Camarasaurus was capable of chomping through tougher plant material than Diplodocus . . .”) However, this is just a period followed by an ellipsis. This is because ellipses do not remove punctuation marks when the original punctuation still is in use; they are instead used in conjunction with original punctuation. This is true for all punctuation marks, including periods, commas, semi-colons, question marks, and exclamation points.

By looking at two sympatric species (those that lived together) from the fossil graveyards of the Late Jurassic of North America . . . , [David Button] tried to work out what the major dietary differences were between sauropod dinosaurs, based on their anatomy.

One of the best ways to check yourself is to take out the ellipsis. If the sentence or paragraph is still correctly punctuated, you’ve used the ellipsis correctly. (Just remember to put it back in!) (14)


(7) Punctuation. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution 4.0

(8) Periods, Text: Punctuation Clusters. Authored by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution 4.0

(9) Question. Provided by: Wikipedia. Located at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Question License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

(10) Exclamation mark. Provided by: Wikipedia. Located at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclamation_mark License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

(11) Revision and Adaptation. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0

(12) Style For Students Online. Authored by: Joe Schall. Provided by: The Pennsylvania State University. Located at https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/ Project:Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ OER Initiative. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0

(13) Ellipses. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution 4.0

(14) Modification of They might be giants, but how could they live with each other?. Authored by: Jon Tennant. Provided by: European Geosciences Union. Located athttp://blogs.egu.eu/network/palaeoblog/2015/03/05/they-might-be-giants-but-how-could-they-live-with-each-other Project: Green Tea and Velociraptors. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0


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