Voice Through Punctuation

In our study of mentor texts (most recently, the prologue to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the thirty-fourth chapter of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and James Ramsey Ullman’s “A Boy and a Man” from our Prentice-Hall literature textbook), we’ve paid attention to how the authors have used punctuation to bring out the emotion of what is happening on the page.  Hyphenated adjectives can add voice, dashes can add a sense of immediacy and urgency, colons can add dramatic emphasis, and ellipses can show hesitation or doubt.  Of course, these aren’t the only uses for these punctuation marks.  We’ve been playing with them in our writing over the past few weeks to see what more they can do for us.

Here are examples from student work that I collected in my classroom about six or seven years ago. These sentences were all taken from personal narratives written in response to the prompt “write about a moment you’ll always remember.”

Hyphenated Adjective

We weren’t just scared.  We were scared-out-of-our-wits scared. Shelby

We didn’t call our full-court, man-to-man, get-the-ball defense “Duracell” for nothing.  In our last game alone, we had created fifteen turnovers.Ryan


I was having the time of my life.  Something was bound to happen—something bad. –Jesse

Confused, I glanced at the clock.  It was only—wait—that couldn’t be!  Nine o’clock?!! –Annie

There were no birds singing, no plants swaying, no clouds moving—another breathless day. –Carly

Every minute—every second—was precious to me, because every instant we weren’t there was a moment he might die.  I don’t remember whether or not I cried.  It wasn’t important.  What was important was how much I needed him—how much I would miss him—how much I loved him. –Hetty

I was trapped. The towering oak which had once captured my imagination now held me prisoner in my own treehouse.  I yelled for my mom, for my dog—for anyone!  –Jaci


It was World War III:  older brother vs. younger sister.  There were pillows, books, even food being thrown.  Soon we were throwing ourselves at each other!  — Myles

I knew something then:  this dog needed me, and I needed him too. –Emmi

It was only later that I realized what I had accomplished:  not only had I broken my own record, but I had broken the all-time record! — Katy

Victory was mine:  I had decimated his army and captured his king in the most strategic and graceful game of chess I’d ever played.  — Clifton


I felt strange…not good, not bad.  Only one thing was certain:  I had to make the best out of a sad situation—new house, new room, new things. –Mary

“Ummm…sure…I’ll do it,” I finally answered.  Oh my God, I thought…What did I just do?Jessie

“Hi, I…I’m Je…Jessica.”  My lips were paralyzed and my heart was pounding furiously.  Three hundred pairs of eyes were staring up at me, watching my every move. –Jessica

Students, use the comments to post examples of punctuation craft from your recent essays or blog posts.

64 thoughts on “Voice Through Punctuation

  1. “Well…umm…I guess…I don’t know?” I say to my teacher as I try to get out of answering a question, one that I do not know the answer to.

  2. You know you’re dead—who wouldn’t be in your situation?
    The question is: how in the world did you manage to tick off a 40 ft monster duck?

  3. On the computer, it takes a while to load the page, and twice as long to type the designated website and re-load. To even turn it on takes clicking the on button repeatedly and hours of waiting and clicking on the internet button and doing it again and banging your fist on the table and watching the screen with narrowed eyes and really wishing you could melt it right now into a white, sorry-but-the-page-can-not-load goo.

  4. Everything was still–the trees, the grass, and the small animals normally scampering about were like statues in the dark.

  5. Uh oh…I hadn’t studied that much the night before, and I didn’t know how to answer many of the questions on the quiz.

  6. What to post, what to post, what to post… I’m having trouble deciding –funny, this never happens on my blog– what to say AGAIN.

  7. Whenever I’m on the turf running suicides and passing drills, sweat dripping off my nose right along side my team, I feel– I feel alive.

  8. How was the Super Bowl?… “Duh”! It was touchdown after touchdown, turnover after turnover, and the Broncos couldn’t get anything done. The Super Bowl was boring…

  9. It was the day: the day when the two best teams in the nation fight to death against each other… the day when my favorite team would lie down… victoriously.

  10. It’s my duty to convince our parents–if we’re lucky–to take us on a trip to the best water park in Texas: Schlitterban!

  11. “Okaaayyyyy—how big is this cliff again?” I stuttered as I peered down the abyss, at the rocks, the river, the tall grass, the rolling fields, the forest, and a field of cow pies.

  12. I mean who couldn’t resist a glowing 10-inch screen that has who-knows=what moving all around it? For some it’s an irresistible treasure and a “Must have…”

  13. I looked around but it was all a little blurry, all I could really see was the eyes-wide, gaping-mouth faces of parents and children.

  14. I crept out from behind my cover with a sudden realization: Not only was my avatar alive, but he had lost no health, and my assailant–who had been clumsily wielding a rocket launcher–had killed himself in his attempt to eliminate my team.

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