Quoting and Quoting a Quote

The following is a paraphrased topic request from a loyal reader:

Grammar Cat, you are so awesome with grammar. I think you are the paramount source of cat-related grammar on the internet. Please tell me about how quotation marks work with other punctuation.

Well, grotesquely paraphrased reader, the good news is that this doesn’t have to get too complicated. The bad news is that you will have to do some memorization. The first thing you must do is abandon almost every fundamental need for a consistent rule. The second thing you must do is blame the British for the madness that is American quotation punctuation.


British rules tend to follow a consistent string of logic. However, Americans at some point decided to do our punctuation a bit differently, just to be…well, different. The most obvious difference between British and American rules is that standard quotation marks for the Brits are single marks like so: ‘I do say, Sir Purrsalot, this custard is brilliant!’ while Americans prefer, “My cat ate a cheeseburger the other day and everyone thought it was funny, but I have no idea why.” But we’re not British, right?

Darn tootin’!

I’m pretty sure quite a few people had to die to make it this way, so let’s not disgrace their memory by screwing with punctuation.


Punctuation that helps introduce a quotation will always go before the opening quotation mark. Whether it’s a comma, period, colon, semicolon, em dash, or whatever other harebrained thing you can think up, it will always be correct with the punctuation mark preceding the opening quotation mark.

I swear my cat just said, “I love you, Daddy.”

The cat’s eyes bore into me until I cracked. “Okay, fine! I did it! I spilled your milk saucer!”

He then understood what was happening: “Dude, I think my cat is on drugs.”

“Sorry, but I ate all of the green stuff that you always hide in your sock drawer when your mother visits.”


This is really the main event, right? This is why you’re here.

Periods and Commas

Here’s a simple thing to remember:

Periods always go inside the closing quotation mark.

And guess what.

Commas always go inside the closing quotation mark. 

Repeat after me: Periods and commas always go inside the closing quotation mark.

“So many hairballs, but so little time,” the cat said sultrily.

“I think I’ve seen that cat kill a man before.” Steve’s fearful eyes never left Fluffy’s as he backed away.

The talking cat’s first words were, “milk,” “love me,” and “okay, we’re done here.”

Colons and Semicolons

Here’s another simple thing to remember:

Semicolons always go outside the closing quotation mark.

Same goes for colons.

Colons always go outside the closing quotation mark.

Now repeat after me: Colons and semicolons always go outside the closing quotation mark.

I should have said, “I’m sorry your cat is a communist”; instead I read him Das Kapital.

I noticed something strange while reading William Carlos Williams’s “Poem (As the cat)”: I am a cat.

“It all makes sense now.”

Exclamation Points and Question Marks

Now let’s get into some grayer territory and learn about question marks and exclamation points.

Question marks and exclamation points can go inside or outside of the closing quotation mark. 

The way to determine where to place your ? or ! depends on the context of the sentence. If your quotation is part of a larger question or exclamation, then the ? or ! it will go after the closing quotation mark, and no other punctuation is needed before the closing quotation.

For example:

Would you rather spend a day in a freezer with a wolverine or spend an entire day listening to “Honky Cat”?

To quote Socrates, you idiot, “Kittens don’t eat broccoli”!


“Do you have any Grey Poupon?”

“Why, I never!” the cat said when the waiter admitted he had no Grey Poupon.

As you can tell from the last two examples, when the ? or ! is actually part of the quotation, it comes before the closing quotation mark.

So yes, there’s a bit of thinking when it comes to the question mark and exclamation point. Sorry about all that.


Prepare to have your mind stretched to its limits!

“A quotation within a quotation within a quotation within…”

When a quote has a quote within it, Americans use a single quotation mark to denote the secondary quotation. So say you’re writing about your petty friend imitating his cat. He believes the cat said, “Give me some food and shove off.” Now, since we only quoted the cat in that example, the speech goes in double quotes. But when we quote our petty friend’s rendition, then suddenly the cat’s words are embedded within our friend’s speech, making it something like,

“My cat is such a mooch. He just walks up to me and says, ‘Give me some food and shove off!’ and then walks away.” 

Notice that the embedded quote of the cat is punctuated with the exclamation point just like a double quotation would be. And that’s the trick. Quotes within quotes are treated just like regular quotations. The only difference is in the single or double quotation mark.

For those of you who never know when enough is enough and are asking, “But what if someone is quoting the Grammar Cat’s example of a quote within a quote? How does one indicate a triple-layer quote?” Okay. Here’s how it would go: The Grammar Cat says, “…then suddenly the cat’s words are embedded within our friend’s speech, making it something like, ‘My cat is such a mooch. He just walks up to me and says, “Give me some food and shove off!” and then walks away.'”  Always start with a and then go to a then back to a and so on and so forth.

However, here’s an easier rule:

If you find yourself using a triple-layer or (dog forbid) quadruple-layer quote, find a way to rework the sentence so that you don’t have to do that.

Readers will thank you.

Also, when there’s a single quote and double quote next to each other, it looks terrible. CMoS acknowledges this fact and allows for a space to be placed between them for readability’s sake, if one so chooses.


This last tidbit on quotation marks feels more like a public service announcement than a grammar lesson. There’s this weird thing that people do nowadays when they have too limited a vocabulary to use connotation to their advantage and think that for some reason italics, underlining, and/or bolding doesn’t provide enough emphasis on a particular word. This terrible thing is where people use quotation marks to add emphasis. This is not a function of the quotation mark. Here is an example of how quotation marks are used incorrectly:


The above makes no sense. Is there really a dog?  Is there just the concept of dogness happening? Is there just a cat whose name is Dog?


“Beware me!”



The only way that random graffiti would make any sense is if saying the word “dog” was something to beware.

What’s even worse is that now there are people who see others using quotation marks to add emphasis and react with, “Oh, that’s just silly. Everyone knows it’s the single quotation mark that’s used to add emphasis.” WRONG. THAT IS SO WRONG. That makes even less sense, because there is only one use for single quotation marks, and that is listed above under Quotations Within Quotations.

Here are some examples of incorrect use of quotations, both single and double:

My cat stopped eating his “so-called” food.

How many more times until my cat realizes I ‘don’t’ want him to shed?

Just writing those examples is making my skin crawl, and yet it happens everywhere. I almost feel bad for pointing it out, because now you’ll notice it everywhere.

Sometimes I “use” quotation marks because it makes it seem like I’m not the one “responsible” for my stupid words, but that I’m just “quoting someone else.”

It’s unclear whether people started abusing quotation marks to avoid taking personal responsibility for their own words, instead trying to pass the buck to some other unnamed source, but that seems pretty typical for the internet.

Since it only seems right to end the quotation mark post with a quotation, I’ll leave everyone with the words of the great Theodor Geisel. “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Grammar Cat can’t be sure, but we think he wrote this in regard to the misuse of quotation marks.


Deep Thoughts with Muffie the Cat

Grammar Kittens, they tell me it’s a new year. A time for fresh starts and resolutions. While many of you may be working on your vows to exercise more…


…or something, let’s make a collective grammar resolution, okay? Okay. Here it is:

We are all going to get it together when it comes to writing about characters’ thoughts.

Is this the biggest problem that English literature faces? No. Does it make me want to shoot laser beams out of my eyes?



What am I talking about, you inquire? As a matter of fact, I can show you many problems with one example:

Why had his owner given him such a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought to himself?

Though fiction editors are notoriously well-adjusted individuals, this sort of thing will make your editor get emotional in the margins and have to do a little deep breathing.

Direct thoughts are pretty much what they sounds like: you are showing exactly what a character is thinking, as they think it. Dialogue shows what a character is saying; a direct thought shows what he’s thinking.

A lot of the problems in the example above can be avoided if we simply pretend that the direct thought is dialogue. If Muffie were whining to his friends about his predicament, he would probably say this:

“Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?” Muffie the cat asked.


This cat is probably named Muffie.

You will notice several key differences:

1) Verb tense: If a thought is being portrayed as the character thinks it, it should be in the tense the character would actually use. That sounds simple. Apparently it is very difficult to remember, because sometimes it comes up. Since Muffie is as stupid a name now as it was yesterday, we’d say, Why did his owner give him such a stupid name?

2) Person: If you think of yourself in third person, we have bigger fish to fry. Let’s change that to: Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?

3) Punctuation: Remember that thing about dialogue? You would never put the final punctuation on a sentence after the dialogue tag (though sometimes that comes up too) (deep breaths). Hence, Why did my owner give me such a stupid name? Muffie the cat thought to himself.

4) Extraneous crap: “He thought to himself” is repetitive like “ATM machine” is repetitive.” Under no set of circumstances can the inclusion of something like “to himself”–or “silently” or “in his mind”–avoid confusion that the reader would otherwise have been plunged into.


“But did he think it out loud or silently?”

No. No one is going to be confused about that. The absence of quotation marks and the word “thought” are blinking neon clues that what is being thought is being thought deep, deep inside Muffie’s head. Once again, you may think that surely this has never in the history of all literature come up in an actual manuscript, but you would be incorrect. (More deep breaths.)

Speaking of italics, they’re a handy tool for conveying direct thought. In much the same way that quotes stake out the beginning and end of dialogue, italics can be used to show the boundaries of the thought. A common practice, and generally a pretty foolproof one, is to omit the italics when a direct thought tag is present. Thus:

Muffie is a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought.


Muffie is a stupid name. Muffie gazed out the window, feeling tragic.

Note the comma in the first example and the period in the second. “Thought” functions the same way “said” would if “Muffie is a stupid name” were spoken aloud. Call it a thought tag, like a dialogue tag. “Muffie gazed out the window,” being a regular old sentence, should keep its distance from the direct thought with a period.

So there you have it. All the rules. Now it’s up to you, Grammar Kittens. Make 2013 the year of writing direct thoughts properly:



Or make it the year of editors with laser eyes.:


Talking About Family: Merry Commamas!

Grammar Cat loves the holidays.

Our favorite part is visiting family. Unfortunately, some people aren’t so good with writing about their family afterward. So let’s do a quick review on how to talk about people, both individually and in groups.

Setting Off Nonessential Information

When information in a sentence doesn’t need to be there for the meaning of the sentence to stay the same, it’s called “nonessential.” This sort of information is set off by commas on either side (unless it ends a sentence, in which case it’s preceded by a comma and followed by your terminal punctuation of choice).  For example:

The cat rolled onto its back, like it always does, and tried to scratch my arm.

Can you spot the nonessential information? I’ll give you a hint: it’s set off by commas. The sentence describes the exact same thing if the nonessential information is removed:

The cat rolled onto its back and tried to scratch my arm.

Now let’s consider nonessential information in respect to your family, because goodness knows holidays spent with the family can easily become a verbal onslaught of nonessential information.

When talking about or introducing people, there is usually the component of nonessential information. Say you come from a large Italian family and you have a handful of Aunt Marias. How do you successfully relate to your mother which one of them has had too much eggnog and is hitting on the neighbor? Well, you could say, “Mom, Aunt Maria who has the drinking problem is hitting on the neighbor again,” assuming that there is only one Aunt Maria with a drinking problem. Because the “who has a drinking problem” is essential information to identify the exact Aunt Maria who is going to be a hot topic at the next HOA meeting, it doesn’t need to be set off by commas.

But the situation can change in a way where a comma after “Maria” does become necessary. “Mom, Aunt Maria, who I already told you was a bad idea to invite, is passed out on the lawn.” This example assumes that Mom knows exactly which Maria is pulling the shenanigans, and the “who” clause is just a bit of rubbing in her face that you totally called Aunt Maria’s behavior. While gloating is nice, it’s nonessential information in that situation.

So what about introductions? There’s essential and nonessential information in those, too. Please consider:

“This is my brother, Will, and his wife, who came all the way from New Jersey.” 

This first example asserts that the speaker has only one brother, making the name of Will nonessential to identifying who this is (in this case, it’s also an appositive). It also allows for the cultural norm of Will only having one wife, and that wife is from New Jersey.

Now consider:

“This is my brother Will and his wife who came all the way from New Jersey.”

This introduction implies a slightly different thing. First, it says that the name Will is essential to identifying which brother of the speaker’s is being referenced, meaning the speaker has more than one brother. Secondly, and most importantly, it implies that, while this wife of Will’s has made the journey from NJ, his other wives weren’t able to make it for the holidays.

“You think the other wives know?”

Now say you bring your unsuspecting significant other into a room full of your relatives and it’s time for rapid-fire introductions. First let’s establish a few things about your family, giving insight to what the heck is about to happen:

You have two cousin Freds, but one is in Iraq.

Uncle Jerry spent three years in prison.

You only have one sister and her name is Sally.

You have a nephew whose name you can never remember.

You only have one living grandma and she made your significant other the hideous sweater he or she is currently wearing.

Ready? Here goes the awkward introduction:

“This is my uncle Fred who isn’t in Iraq. This is Uncle Jerry, who spent three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” You wink at Uncle Jerry and hope it’s enough to guarantee your safety for another year. “And this is my sister, Sally, and her son”—is it Jayden? Braydon? Caedon?—”and this is my grandma, who sent you that lovely sweater you’re wearing right now.”

Capitalizing Family Titles

Let’s talk about capitalization for a minute. We all know that proper nouns are capitalized: Sally, Jerry, Fred, etc. When it comes to titles like uncle, aunt, cousin, niece, and nephew, things get a little trickier. A few things to know:

If the familial title is used in place of the person’s actual name, then it is capitalized.

Why won’t Grandma stop petting her cat for one second?

If Dad would just stop pestering Mom, we might have a pleasant meal for once.

When the familial title appears before the name, it is capitalized.

You see what Uncle Jim is doing over there? What a weirdo.

I wish Grandpa Smith would stop spouting off racist things.

When the familial title follows a possessive pronoun, do not capitalize.

My dad says to take off the dress and stop your crying.

Your aunt Maria sure does love eggnog.

To celebrate the holidays, Grammar Cat will leave you with a slew of holiday cat pictures.

Sorry there aren’t more Kwanzaa cats. Blame the internet.

If You Want Me to Understand the Sentence, Maybe You Could Put the Words in the Right Order.

We have our first requested topic:

My cat is fascinated with dangling modifiers, and pretty much anything else dangling, but my professor, who is normally very much like a cat, is not a fan at all. What are they and who should I believe?


Osten makes a good point: dangling modifiers, like other dangling things, are highly attractive to cats. But Grammar Cats know better than the fall for the ploy.

cat with string


Dangling modifiers come in many flavors:

Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

You will notice these sentences have one thing in common: each contains a phrase that should be connected to a particular word in the sentence, but is instead connected to something else. That phrase is the dangling modifier. Why dangling? Maybe because it’s not attached to the word it’s supposed to be attached to. Or maybe because that’s kind of how it feels to read it, like you’re dangling.


Like this, but less comfortable.

On the off chance that you see nothing wrong with those example sentences, let me break this down.

First example: Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

Stepping out through the cat door must refer to the cat, because birds do not go through cat doors (the very idea!). But as soon as your eyes slide from the participle phrase, where do they land? On the bird. A reader ignorant in the ways of cats would assume the bird is the one stepping out through the cat door, which is preposterous.

Second example: The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The friends don’t have a bird clamped in their mouths; otherwise why would they be jealous? But even once readers work out that the phrase must refer to the cat, there’s no noun to which we can attach the bird clamped in his mouth. “The cat’s hunting skills” aren’t holding a bird in its (their?) mouth either.

Third example: The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Either the cat or the bird could be chasing its tail. Birds don’t really chase their tails, but how would you know from the sentence?

Fourth example: Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

Tall, dark, and handsome appears to be grammatically attached to the bird. In fact, those ignorant readers might float along, believing it does refer to the bird. This is obviously incorrect, as cats alone can be tall, dark, and handsome, but the sentence doesn’t point the reader in that direction.


Wait! But what if the introductory phrase can only refer to one noun in the sentence, just not the nearest noun?

That’s a good question, cat that’s making a face at me. Let’s say we have a sentence like:

With his furry tail and long whiskers, Mrs. Bird knew Mr. Cat was a fine specimen of god’s greatest creature.

Obviously “furry tail and long whiskers” does not refer to the bird. Furthermore, the “his” in the prepositional phrase tells us that this must refer to the male creature in the sentence, which would be Mr. Cat. Though the phrase is grammatically attached to the bird, deduction can tell us it describes the cat.

So sure, readers can figure it out. But why make them work any harder? If you are an author, your readers’ poor, feeble brains are overtaxed by the broad reach of your vocabulary. If you’re Osten, your professor is annoyed to have been woken from his extensive napping regimen in order to grade a paper. Don’t make them struggle to figure out what you’re talking about.


F minus.

To avoid angering a cat/your professor, restructure the sentence to place the offending phrase closer to what it’s intended to modify. Here are our original examples with the former dangling modifier in bold:

As the cat stepped out through the cat door, he was hit in the face by a bird. (The cat, not the bird, steps through the cat door.)

While chasing his tail, the cat looked at the bird. (Now it’s clearly the cat’s tail, not the bird’s.)

With his tail held high, the cat impressed all the ladies. (The cat’s tail is held high.)

The bird was very impressed by the cat, who was tall, dark, and handsome. (Damn straight.)


Tall, Dark, and Handsome Cat is pleased to meet you.

As these examples illustrate, restructuring a sentence is sometimes either necessary or expedient to avoid other problems. The first example, for instance, could have been revised by simply switching “bird” and “cat,” like so: Stepping out through the cat door, the cat was hit in the face by a bird. But now we have passive voice, and guess what? Cat professors don’t like that either.


Do you have a topic for the Grammar Cat? Send us your questions here.


Simple Tenses: They Don’t Have to Make You Tense

Events tend to happen in a linear fashion, unless you’re from Tralfamadore. We mere Earthlings have to tell stories with some semblance of respect for chronology. It’s because of this that learning how and when to use each tense is to your advantage.  Here’s a visual aid that I most definitely didn’t spend an hour slaving over in Paintbrush.

Tense Timeline

If the timeline tells us one thing, it is that cats always want what they can’t have. If it tells us two things, it should be that cats always want what they can’t have and that time works in a linear fashion and can be broken down into a specific sequence of events that we can naturally identify based on auxiliary verbs and verb forms.

Behold. The greediest of God’s creatures.

Let’s talk about the tenses individually so that we don’t confuse a cat. For fear of this blog repeating itself, let’s be brief on past perfect, since Julia has already eloquently explained it here.

The following explanations use examples of simple tenses, not continuous tenses, which will eventually get their own post.

Past Perfect Tense

When you’re talking about something that has happened, like a kitten’s watery eyes boring into your soul because it just wants that cookie so bad, you may encounter a situation where you need to provide some background for why the kitten is in your kitchen, because you don’t own a kitten. So you have your simple past: “This kitten stared at me with watery eyes.” But then your friends are staring at you openmouthed because you don’t own a kitten and they suspect you may have started stealing again, you klepto. Well, guess what? The past perfect is about to save your social reputation. “I had left the door open that morning to let in some fresh air, and a kitten walked in.” Your friends might be skeptical, but at least you gave them an explanation.


“I was just sitting in my front yard when the human ran up and snatched me…”

Past Tense

When you tell a story, your basic tense—the one where the majority of the action happens—will be past tense. There are a few exceptions to this, like:

  1. If you’re clairvoyant and are telling someone their future: My spirit guide wants me to tell you that a cat will pee on your shoe when the next full moon rises.
  2. If you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book: You walk down the empty corridor and look to your left. Down the hall are identical twin kittens staring at you…but there haven’t been kittens in this building for eighteen years. If you want to run, turn to page…
  3. If you’re prefacing your story with a previous action (see the section on past perfect that you just read and should understand by now).

The narrator’s norm should be past tense, basically. So on the timeline above, the You Are Here for a narrator will generally be not at the present tense, but at the past tense and shift in either direction from there.

Cats don’t understand the You Are Here on a map.

Present Tense

This is the most happening of tenses.

Right. Sorry. No more puns.

The present tense is pretty handy. It can point out things that are happening right now. The most important use may be the warning.

“Watch out! There is a guard cat flying at your head!”

“Ach! Thwarted again by the present tense!”

We live in the present tense. Crazy, right? The present tense is, like, now. Don’t let it blow your mind. We tend to talk in the present tense when we talk about ourselves, which is most of the time. “I think,” “I like,” and “I want” are useful present tense tools. There’s not much more to say about it. I feel like it’s pretty easy to grasp. If you’re confused…sorry?

Present Perfect Tense

This tense, like all of the other perfect tenses, can generally fall anywhere during a particular range of time. For the present perfect, the event described will fall anywhere between the past tense and the present tense. It’s like the shortstop of tenses because it covers the the space in between those two points. The beginning of the verb could have started anywhere in the past, but the action or effects of that verb last until the present. Here is how it works versus the past tense.

Past tense: The kitten ate the cookie.

Present perfect tense: The kitten has eaten the cookie.

The difference between these two is that, while the present perfect talks about something that is in the past, it points toward the present. Imagine, if you will, that the present perfect event is a magic trick where the magician is making a cat disappear. There’s a process involved in that—put the cat in a box, rotate the box, allow magic to take place—but at some point between when the box is closed and when it’s opened, disappearing takes place. Now imagine the magician presenting this amazing feat: “Ladies and gentleman, the cat has vanished.” Any time you have trouble remembering what the present perfect is, ask yourself if a magician would use it to announce what has happened. Hopefully present perfect tense will seem wildly more entertaining to you with this new magic-related association.

Cats love purr-esent purr-fect. And magic.

Future Perfect Tense

The placement of future perfect on the timeline can be tricky, because you can’t go straight to it from present tense. Future perfect can only be used if it’s paired with the future tense (similar to how past perfect relates to past). For this reason, let’s skip over it, move onto future tense, and then come back.

Future Tense

Travel into the future with me for a second.

“I’m already there…here…in the future.”

No, astronaut grammar cat, not actually traveling into the future, because if we spoke about things in the future while we were in the future, then we would just be speaking about the present.

The future tense is handy because talking about things to come helps prepare us for things to come. For example,

  1. That kitten will grow up to be a cat.
  2. Your litter box will smell terrible when you get home.
  3. The Catfather will set you straight.

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Good point, Catfather. While “will” is often used as the auxiliary verb to indicate that an event takes place in the future, there are other words that indicate the same thing. For example, “going to” (or “gonna” if you’re a lazy typist).

Here are a few other forms for talking about the future, using the subject “I” and the phrase “bathe the cat”:

  1. I shall bathe the cat.
  2. I am to bathe the cat.
  3. I am about to bathe the cat.
  4. I must go bathe the cat.
  5. I should go bathe the cat.
  6. I can go bathe the cat.
  7. I might go bathe the cat.

“You shall NOT bathe the cat.”

Future Perfect Tense (second attempt)

Now that we’ve ventured into the future tense, we can travel back from the future into the future perfect. This one works a lot like the past perfect. It’s used for talking about something that has happened between the present and the future. Yes, technically it is in the future itself, but it’s the present’s future, and the future’s past. This is something that will [indicating the future] have happened [notice the past tense verb]. Referring back to the timeline, we have the future of the kitten wanting milk, but before that, it will eat a cookie.

So, Before you know it, the kitten will have eaten its cookie and it will want some milk.

Putting it All Together

So it should all be clear, right?

Here’s the timeline again:

Tense Timeline

Now working off the examples of that timeline, we can create a short story (I used the word “story” loosely here, because nothing interesting actually happens). The story:

The kitten wants a cookie [present]. In fact, it has wanted [present perfect] one for quite some time. Before the kitten wanted a cookie [simple past], it had wanted a brownie [past perfect]. Before you know it, the kitten will have eaten the cookie [future perfect] and it will want some milk [simple future].

“Enough of your yapping. Give me a damn cookie already.”

Official Endorsement: Our Style Guide

hell yes CMoS
Grammar Cat is too broke for the 16th edition.

If you were wondering, we here at Grammar Cat have sworn blood oaths to the Chicago Manual of Style, namely because it is a thing of such beauty that even cats are wonderstruck in its presence.

If, however, you see us refer to CMoS, we are speaking of the Cat Manual of Style. Obviously.

Exclamation Point Etiquette: Please Stop Yelling at Me

Have you ever been at a party and there’s that one girl who is constantly yelling things like, “Oh my god! Shut up!” and “She is such a slut!”? If you despise that girl as much as we at Grammar Cat do, then this is a post you’re going to want to pay attention to, because the written world has “that girl,” too. Only, when it comes to print, it’s not the harpy’s piercing voice that does the damage; it’s the exclamation point.

Don’t be this cat.

The whole “indoor voices” thing we’re taught in elementary school never actually stops being relevant. People who yell all the time will inevitably find themselves alone at some point. In a similar vein, people who use exclamation points all the time will eventually stop being read.

Obviously there’s a reason this punctuation mark was created, but like any good tool, it can be used against its handler fairly easily.

Let’s start off with why it’s useful. The exclamation point is a way for a writer to tell a reader that something is being said emphatically or in a high volume.

Here are some examples of things worth shouting about:

“Either the cat goes or I want a divorce!”

“That kitten is driving a car!”

“Everyone watch out! That cat has a gun!”

These are all things where you would probably be pretty understanding about all the yelling (if not yelling yourself, in the case of the third example). Notice this is all dialogue. Also notice that if this list went on for too much longer, you would probably tire of all the yelling, regardless of if it seemed warranted or not.

Let’s talk about exclamation points in narration. Here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t freaking use them.


The narrator shouldn’t be yelling. That’s not the narrator’s job. The narrative voice isn’t some sort of warm-up act for the conflict and characters. It doesn’t need to point out things like, The characters’ actions were so zany, guys! If your narrator is doing that, your characters aren’t doing their jobs.

But what if it’s first-cat narration?

If you’re writing first-person narration, you’re probably facing a litter-box load of other challenges, so it may be best to avoid making your narrator “that girl” by having her yell all the time. It doesn’t matter if your narrator is a little unstable, either. Take, for example, the infamous unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield. His narration doesn’t use exclamation points, proving that even a horny sixteen-year-old boy has sense enough to take it easy with the stabbiest of punctuation.

But it isn’t an exclamation point free-for-all when it comes to dialogue. Just like listening to a shouting match in real life is tiring, reading a shouting match in print—and all the !!! that goes along with it—can become stressful and irritating. If you find that your characters are shouting at each other a lot, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Could these characters possibly mix sarcasm or passive aggression into the interaction to avoid all the shouting?
  2. Why do these characters hate each other so much?
  3. Would there have been a wiser place to set the story besides an airplane runway?
  4. Do I, as the author, need too seek help for unresolved conflicts in my life?

But sometimes I get so ANGRY that one exclamation point ISN’T ENOUGH!!!!

If one exclamation point isn’t enough, then it’s time to reword; it’s not time to start tacking on more and more exclamation points. The person who benefits most from this suggestion isn’t the readers but the writer. Once the possibility of more exclamation points is presented, where does an author stop?

“Well, before, the character was angry, so I put one exclamation point, but then he got really angry, so I used two. But now he’s, like, super pissed, so I’m not sure if that’s four exclamation points or five.”

Before you know it, the readers have caught on, too, and are trying to keep track.

“This doesn’t make sense. When his stubbed his toe, he had three exclamation points, but when he told his cheating wife to go to hell, there was only one, even though he was clearly more pissed about his wife than his toe. Only one explanation: TYPO!”

Readers love finding typos.

The exclamation point should be treated like a knife. If you pull it out and start waving it around, people are going to take notice, which can be useful. But don’t pull it out too often or you’ll start to seem reckless and your friends will start avoiding you and having “other plans” every time you want to hit the town. And for god’s sake, don’t give a knife to “that girl.” She’s already had way too much to drink.

I’m so drunk!!!!!!!!!!

The “Perfect” in “Past Perfect” Does Not Refer To How You’ve Been Using It.

Hello, grammar kittens.

I’d like to start off our inaugural post with something that worries my editorial sensibilities deeply: verb tense abuse.

One verb tense in particular. One that drives me insane both when it is used incorrectly and when it’s used correctly but too much:

Past perfect.


But it’s perfect! How can it be wrong for any situation?

And yet it usually is.

Let’s say you’re writing a story in simple past tense. The cats walked down the street, you might write. Walked is in past tense. You go on:

The white cat said, “Something strange happened to me yesterday.”

“What was it?” asked the black cat.

All of this is fine. Your editor is pleased that you have mastered dialogue tags. But then:

“Well,” said the white cat, “I had been walking down the street, just like we are now, and a big, ugly dog had leapt out of a doorway at me. I had puffed up to show it I was a mightier creature, but it had made a noise at me. Then the strange thing had happened: it had flapped its wings at me.”

Now your editor is getting emotional in the margins. She may raise any number of issues, among them:

  • reading a long passage in past perfect like wading through cold molasses*
  • this distances the reader from the action
  • no one talks this way, not even talking cats

also a cat

But wait. The narration is in past tense. The white cat is describing something that happened before that. Shouldn’t it be in past perfect?

While I admire your efforts at logic, no. If we imagine the cat to be a living, breathing (talking) creature, it is thinking present tense. It would say, I am walking down the street. And it would say, Yesterday I walked down the street. Odds are, simple past tense will serve you best. The only time you’d say, I had walked down the street would be to make a comparison (I had walked down the street, but now I prefer to skip) or to differentiate between two distinct periods of time (I had walked down the street weeks earlier, but only yesterday was there a dog).

Which brings me to the next problem:

The dog had actually been a bird, the black cat had said. The white cat’s reference to wings had told the black cat that it had not been a dog. The reference to strange noises, which the white cat had gone on to describe as “chirping,” had confirmed this suspicion.

Overuse past perfect obscures the sequence of events. The black cat’s “had said” takes place a day later than “the dog had been a bird,” but you can’t tell that from the verb tense.

As for the “like wading through cold molasses” part, if you find that you have no choice but to write a long anecdote into your story about events which took place long ago–let’s say you’re being held at gunpoint–you can introduce the anecdote with some past perfect and then fade gently into simple past tense. Do it skillfully enough and the reader will never know and your editor will never have to shank you.**


*Whether or not this passage would be readable in any other tense is beyond the scope of this post.

**Gently and with love.

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