The Black Opal Books Board of Directors has adopted the following guidelines for grammar for all our fiction and non-fiction books. While some of these are a simply matter of style, and not necessarily incorrect usage either way, at Black Opal Books, we ask you to adhere to the following guidelines regardless:

Publishers receive many manuscripts that often misuse the em dash, colon, semi-colon, exclamation point, and ellipsis. Overuse of any of these grammar tools disrupts the flow of a book, not to mention that incorrect usage is…well, incorrect.

Please read the following guidelines completely. If you overuse any of these tools or use them incorrectly, please correct your manuscript BEFORE YOU SUBMIT IT. In many cases, a simple comma, or creating two sentences out of one, works better. Creating two sentences is the preferred method at Black Opal Books.

The em dash:

The em dash (—) is significantly longer than the en dash (–) and the non-breaking hyphen (-). The em dash is used to separate parts of a sentence in Standard English. Its major, specific uses are:

1.    an abrupt change in the flow of a sentence where the text description that follows the dash is unexpected or significantly deviates in tone from what came before it;

2.    an abrupt termination, such as when a person is speaking and is suddenly interrupted; and

3.    a parenthetical remark—used like this—where there is initially an abrupt change, but the normal flow of the sentence returns after the second dash.

The em dash, m dash, or m-rule, etc., often indicates a parenthetical thought or some similar interpolation, such as the following from Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine:

(At that age I once stabbed my best friend, Fred, with a pair of pinking shears in the base of the neck, enraged because he had been given the comprehensive sixty-four-crayon Crayola box—including the gold and silver crayons—and would not let me look closely at the box to see how Crayola had stabilized the built-in crayon sharpener under the tiers of crayons.)

Please note: while it is not necessarily incorrect grammar to a have space between the em dash and the connecting word or words, as a matter of style at Black Opal Books, we ask that you not use spaces. The spaces on either side of the dash are usually reserved for the en dash, which is rarely used in fiction.

An em dash is also used to indicate that a sentence is unfinished because the speaker has been interrupted. Please do not use an ellipsis for this!!! For example, the em dash is used in the following way in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:

(“He was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; he was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Sweeney in the nightingales among trees. He was the miracle ingredient Z-147. He was—”

“Crazy!” Clevinger interrupted, shrieking. “That’s what you are! Crazy!”

“—immense. I’m a real, slam-bang, honest-to-goodness, three-fisted humdinger. I’m a bona fide supraman.”)

However, if you’re using em dashes to indicate a trailing off in thought, you’re using them incorrectly. This requires an ellipsis! Also, as with ellipses (below), overuse of em dashes breaks the flow of your story. Used correctly, and sparingly, they can greatly increase the effectiveness of your writing.

While not necessarily incorrect grammar, at Black Opal Books we ask that you not put additional punctuation, such as periods, commas, and question marks, after em dashes and ellipses. DO NOT USE HYPHENS UNLESS YOU ARE PUTTING IT BETWEEN HYPHENATED WORDS. A HYPHEN IS NOT AN EM DASH AND IT CANNOT BE USED IN PLACE OF AN EM DASH. IF YOU CANNOT USE A REAL EM DASH, USE TWO HYPHENS. OTHERWISE, YOUR MANUSCRIPT WILL BE CONFUSING AND WILL LIKELY NOT BE READ.

The colon:

The colon has two uses:

1.    to indicate what follows is an explanation or elaboration of what precedes it—the rule being that the more general statement is followed by a more specific one: (There is one challenge above all others: the alleviation of poverty.); and

2.    to introduce a list: (There are four nations in the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.)

Please note: A colon is never preceded by a white space, but it is always followed by a white space. It is never followed by a hyphen or a dash. There are few reasons to use colons in fiction. Usually a comma or an em-dash will work much better. The same applies for semicolons. Don’t use them in fiction.
Please don’t use a colon to introduce dialogue! That’s why God made commas.

The semicolon:

The semicolon is considered stronger than a comma but less final than a full stop. It has three major uses:

1.    to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when the two sentences are too closely related to be separated by a full stop and there is no connecting word (such as “and” or “but”), which would require a comma: (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.);

2.    to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence where the second sentence begins with a conjunctive adverb (such as “however,” “nevertheless,” “accordingly,” “consequently,” or “instead”): (I wanted to make my speech short; however, there was so much to cover.) Please remember it is incorrect to use a semicolon where there is a connecting word, such as “but” or “and”—so don’t make this common mistake; and

3.    to separate items in a list when one or more of those items contains a comma: (The speakers included: Tony Blair, the Prime Minister; Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education & Skills.)

Please note:  The semicolon, even when used correctly, is rarely used effectively in fiction. At Black Opal Books, we would prefer that you not use it except for the number three use above: separating items in a list when one or more of those items contains a comma. If you want to join two complete sentences, please use a comma and a conjunction, or better yet, make them two separate sentences.

Long, run-on sentences:

For some reason, a great many new—and sometimes not so new—fiction authors insist on using long, run-on sentences that combine a number of complete thoughts connected by “and(s)” or by commas. A few of these used to smooth the flow of the writing in a slow scene are acceptable. But please use them sparingly. You do need to vary the length of your sentences, but for the most part, please be careful about making one long sentence if you can make two shorter ones. If you need more than one “and” to connect complete thoughts in a sentence, that sentence is unacceptable: (He sprinted up the stairs, and when he got to the door, he rammed his shoulder against it until it gave way, and then he rushed inside to see if she was hurt.) While this isn’t quality writing by any means, it serves to make our point. This could easily be broken into three sentences, but it would have to be broken into at least two for it to be acceptable. Even if you took out the additional “he(s)” so that all three thoughts weren’t complete sentences, it would still have to be broken up into at least two shorter sentences. Remember, the period is your friend in fiction. Use it. Often.

And don’t forget that while English grammar frowns on sentence fragments as a rule, these are often fine in fiction and can be used for emphasis to greatly increase the effectiveness of your writing.

Repeated words used in close proximity:

In fiction: Nothing irritates a reader like an author using the same word over and over, unless it is for emphasis or its use has a critical plot function. When constructing your sentences and paragraphs, please keep this in mind. If you’re talking about a boat, for instance, and it’s a long paragraph, it’s acceptable to use the word twice, but only if absolutely necessary. In a sentence? No. You can’t use it twice in a sentence. You can use vessel, ship, dinghy, or any of a myriad of other names for boats, but you can’t use the word boat more than a couple of times in the same paragraph.

Why? It pulls the reader out of the story and focuses them on the writing. This is never a good thing. You want your writing to be invisible to your reader. If you repeat a word, you emphasize that word by mere repetition. The reader notices and wonders why, and this pulls them out of the world you created. The same is true of character names. You should not use your characters’ names more than once or twice per page, unless you have two or more people of the same gender in a scene and using the name is necessary to avoid confusion. Other than that, he/she is best. Read your work out loud, and you’ll see what we mean.

In non-fiction: In non-fiction, you often need repetition to get your point across. Therefore, the above rule does not apply. However, if repeating the word is not necessary, use common sense, and if another word can be substituted, please do.

The exclamation point:

The exclamation point is very overused in fiction, especially by new authors. This punctuation mark does have it place, but it should be used sparingly, and again, as with all punctuation marks, except commas and periods, used only when necessary. If your wording or character can convey the urgency of the situation, you don’t need to add an exclamation point. For instance: (“Look out,” she screamed.) speaks for itself. The reader gets it. There is no need to insult their intelligence by adding unneeded punctuation. Now if your sentence was (“Oh, no.”) and the urgency in the scene isn’t immediately obvious for some reason, then it may be acceptable to use the humble exclamation point. But please, think about it first and be sure you really need it.

The comma when used to separate items listed in a sentence:

This is not an issue of incorrect grammar but a matter of style. At Black Opal Books, we request that you use a final comma before the “and” when listing three or more items in a sentence: (He went to the store for bread, milk, eggs, and peanut butter.) While it is also correct to omit the comma before the “and,” we feel that having that final comma makes the sentences clearer and easier for the reader to understand.

Also note, there is no comma preceding the word “then” unless “then” is used in place of the “and” in the example above, or it is used with “and” to connect two complete sentences: (“He stopped at the door then listened to be sure no one was there.”) No comma. (“He stopped at the door, and then he listened to be sure no one was there.”) A comma is okay in this last sentence. The same holds true for other conjunctions, such as but & and. If what comes after the conjunction is a complete sentence, you can use a comma before the conjunction.

The ellipsis (…), sometimes called the suspension or omission marks, has four uses:

1.    to show that some material has been omitted from a direct quotation: (One of Churchill’s most famous speeches declaimed, “We shall fight them on the beaches…We shall never surrender.”);

2.    to indicate suspense: (The nominees are…);

3.    to show that a sentence has been left unfinished because it has simply trailed off: (Watch this space…); and

4.    to indicate an unfinished sentence or thought—thoughts or dialogue trailing off: (“I keep forgetting what I’m trying to say, and…”)

Do not overuse the ellipsis. The ellipsis is not used when a thought is interrupted. Instead, use the em dash.

In nonfiction writing, you use an ellipsis to indicate the deletion of one or more words in condensing quotes, texts, and documents. You must be especially careful to avoid deletions that would distort the meaning and cause confusion. For non-fiction, treat the ellipsis as a three letter word with three periods together without spaces and a space on each side. (For fiction, delete the space on each side of the ellipsis.)

In fiction writing, an ellipsis is usually meant to convey an unfinished (trailing off) thought or sentence, designed to force the reader to use his/her imagination to discern what might come next. This is very overdone, however, and can adversely impact the flow of your story. An ellipsis is also used in fiction to indicate when a character pauses and searches for the right word. When he/she simply hesitates, but doesn’t trail off words or thoughts, use an em dash. (“I’m sorry—I should have told you sooner.”) With this dialogue, the character is hesitating, not trailing off thoughts. Do not use an ellipsis for this.

Because of their disruptive power, ellipses must be used very sparingly and only with careful prior consideration. Put quite succinctly by Deb Taber, Apex Book Company: [“… those nasty little spots, the ones that make editors want to scratch their eyes out and scream … Those pesky little dots come in so handy that writers seem to want to toss them onto manuscripts by the handful. Or perhaps it isn’t intentional; they may get sneezed out onto the computer screen by writers allergic to the frustration of being unable to find the perfect transition …Writers, please, for the love of your story, just stop. Take your finger off the period key after just one stroke each and every time … They hurt your credibility as a writer … Do not use ellipses at the end of a scene unless you are absolutely certain that there is a grammatically logical reason for them to be there, such as to indicate the POV character’s mind drifting from the present scene into a flashback that is directly caused by the occurrences in the scene right before the ellipses. Remember, there is nothing wrong with the perfectly serviceable single period…]”

Put even more succinctly by Deb Harris, All Things That Matter Press: “As a general rule, I intensely dislike them, since they are so often over/misused. Rarely, and I do mean rarely, have I encountered an author who understands the proper use of ellipses.”

Please note: While it is not incorrect grammar to have a space on either side of your ellipses or em dash, as a matter of style at Black Opal Books, we ask that you not use spaces between the ellipsis or em dash and the connecting words for fiction. For non-fiction, the space between the ellipsis or em dash and the connecting words is acceptable.


Italics are often overused by authors. Please use italics for the following, and only for the following:

1.    the titles of books, which may be novels, novella, book-length nonfiction, or book-length poems. Generally, the titles of shorter works, such as short stories, essays or shorter poems, are not italicized but are set off with quotation marks;

2.    the names of newspapers and periodicals;

3.    the names of television series, but not the names of individual episodes (which are set off with quotation marks);

4.    the names of movies and plays;

5.    the names of music albums and sound tracks, but the names of individual songs should be in quotes. (The song “I Can’t Say No” is from the album Oklahoma!) Note that the ! on Oklahoma is italicized because it is part of the name of the album. The rule here is that ending punctuation is not italicized unless it is part of the name being italicized (see below);

6.    the names of operas and other full-length musical compositions, except for works that are named by their number or key (Symphony No. 2);

7.    the names of ships, planes, automobiles. and trains;

8.    the scientific names of plants and animals, such as canis dingo or ailurus fulgens;

9.    to emphasize a word or short phrase: (“You should come to the party.”) Note: if you overuse this technique, it won’t have the intended effect;

10.    foreign-language words that are likely to be unfamiliar to readers: (“At the Ristorante di Dante, I ordered cervello, not knowing I would be served brains.”), however, you would not italicize proper names, such as Ristorante di Dante. Foreign terms or words that are commonly used in English such as bon voyage are not italicized unless used in an uncommon manner;

11.    for headings indicating date, time, and/or place at the beginnings of chapters and scenes in fiction (if applicable): (Memphis, Tennessee, June 10, 1894:), however the colon would not be italicized; and

12.    for showing the internal dialogue or thoughts of your characters.
Please note: The punctuation in a sentence should not be italicized, unless it is part of the word being italicized: (in writing the name of the movie, Dante’s Peak—you would italicize the apostrophe, but in emphasizing dialogue, such as “Look out!” you would not italicize the quotation marks or the exclamation point.

Also, do not use italics to indicate a sound, such as plop, or thwack. If you believe that the reader will not understand that this is a sound, please use quotes and not italics. But readers are often smarter than authors think and most of them can figure out the sounds for themselves.

And remember, large blocks of italics are hard to read. For this reason, short dreams, or flashbacks can be put in italics, but only if they are short.

Numbers in fiction:

When writing numbers, dates, centuries, currency, etc., in fiction, please do as follows:

1.    if used in the body of the text, write them out: (“room twenty-two” “June fourth, two thousand eleven,” “eighteen sixty-four,” “nineteenth century,” and “two-million dollars”). However, if the number is overly long or complicated and it makes more sense to use digits, then do so.

2.    in a heading for a chapter or scene, use the digits: (June 10, 1984).

Scene changes in fiction:

To indicate a change of scene or POV character, please use three asterisks *** centered in the line between the scenes.

The parenthesis:

The parenthesis is almost never used in fiction. At Black Opal Books, we will take the parenthesis on a case by case basis, but in most cases, we ask you not to use them. To set off an aside phrase in a sentence use an em dash.

Quotation Marks:

Quotation marks are fairly simple. Use double quotes for dialogue out loud, and single quotes for dialogue spoken telepathically, or when a character is mentally repeating dialogue spoken earlier.

Dialogue within dialogue: use single quotes if the main dialogue is enclosed in double quotes. Use double quotes if the main dialogue is enclosed in single quotes. If the same character’s dialogue continues to another paragraph without a narrative break, don’t use quotes at the end of the first paragraph, or succeeding paragraphs, until you get to the end of the dialogue, but do use quotes at the beginning of each paragraph.

(“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to want to do it this way, but you leave me no choice.
“I’ve killed all six of the others, and you are the only one left who knows the truth.”)

If, however, there is a narrative break between the two paragraphs, use quotes as normal:

(“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to want to do it this way, but you leave me no choice.” She shifted the gun to her right hand.
“I’ve killed all six of the others, and you are the only one left who knows the truth.”)

Also note: periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, single or double. (“I love that new song ‘Until We Die.’”) The only exception is when a single quote is used as an apostrophe to indicate letters have been left off a word, usually in dialogue. (“I never get nothin’.”) Question marks and exclamation points depend on whether or not what is inside the quotes would be punctuated by the question mark or exclamation point. If so, they go inside the quotes. If not, they go outside. (“Then she screamed, ‘Look out!’”) and (“Do you like the song ‘Until We Die’?”)

Farther versus Further:

Farther refers to distance. (He shoved it farther away.) Further means advanced or more. (She refused to discuss it any further.) Try not to confuse these two if you would.

Use of pronouns:

Remember when you use pronouns such as he, she, it, they, etc., the pronoun refers to the last male, female, non-gender subject, etc., mentioned. So please be aware of who your pronouns refer to.

Ing-Verb *Gerund) Phrases.

Many writers like to start a sentence using an ing-verb or gerund introductory phrase. While there is nothing wrong with this, there are a couple of rules that apply.

1.    The subject of the sentence must be the one doing the ing-verb action. For example, if you say [ Hoping no would had noticed her mistake, her eyes scanned the room. ] this is not correct. What you have said is that her eyes hoped no one would notice her mistake. To correct the sentence you would need to say something like this: [ Hoping no one would notice her mistake, she let her eyes scan the room. ] Now the subject of the sentence is doing the ing-verb action in the introductory phrase; and

2.    Always set off an ing-verb introductory phrase with a comma ) as shown in the example above.