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  • Darren M. Palmer

Common Punctuation Mistakes and How to Avoid Them


Within every writer, there lies great potential to shape and mold the thoughts of others. Using their words, writers can get inside your head, and make you see the world as they would like to. Take the case of the classics, for instance. Not having lost their relevance even after years (sometimes centuries) of being written, they still leave a lasting impression in the minds of the readers of this era.


With the advancement of the digital age, writing has spread its wings too. Nowadays, you will find many blogs and web journals on the Internet that record a writer’s journey. One of the most rewarding pastimes as well as a thought-provoking profession, writing surely is intricately connected to humankind. However, being a successful writer takes hard work and perseverance, as is true for any other profession. 


Punctuation (or sometimes interpunction) is the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and correct reading of written text, whether read silently or aloud. Another description is, "It is the practice action or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks.” In written English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. 


For example: "woman, without her man, is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of men to women), and "woman: without her, man is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of women to men) have very different meanings; as do "eats shoots and leaves" (which means the subject consumes plant growths) and "eats, shoots, and leaves" (which means the subject eats first, then fires a weapon, and then leaves the scene). The sharp differences in meaning are produced by the simple differences in punctuation within the example pairs, especially the latter.


The rules of punctuation vary with language, location, register, and time and are constantly evolving. Certain aspects of punctuation are stylistic and are thus the author's (or editor's) choice, or tachygraphic (shorthand) language forms, such as those used in online chat and text messages.


When it comes to writing do you get frustrated with all of the rules when it comes to punctuation? Where you place a comma or when to use an exclamation mark or a period makes an enormous difference in the meaning of whatever it is you’re writing. 

Let’s face it: proper punctuation can make or break the impact of an otherwise well-constructed sentence. These basic rules can strengthen your sentences with the punctuation they deserve so that the quality of your ideas is communicated with precision and clarity.


Here are the most common punctuation errors people make and how you can avoid making them.


1. Extraneous Apostrophes

The Problem: People putting apostrophes where they don’t belong.

Examples to avoid: It is all your’s. Five dollar’s off!

How to Avoid: In these cases, you want the plural form of the word, so just add an “s.” Add an apostrophe if you need the possessive form, such as, “That is my wife’s car.”

Apostrophes are also used for contractions, such as “shouldn’t” for “should not.”


2. Unnecessary Quotation Marks

The Problem: The use of single or double quotation marks when nothing is being quoted.

Example to avoid: We offer the ‘best price in town’!

How to Avoid: If you’re not quoting something, don’t use single or double quotation marks. If you want to emphasize a specific part of your message, use a bold or italicized font.


3. Missing Commas

The Problem: Without commas, sentences can become run-on blocks of text without any breaks. Example to avoid: I went to the store but they were closed so I went home.

How to Avoid: Speak the sentence aloud and take note of any breaks in your speech. Insert commas when you pause or when you change gears within a sentence.


4. Too Many Commas

The Problem: Just the opposite of missing commas, it’s possible to include an excessive amount of commas in one sentence.

Example to avoid: I went to the store, but they were closed, so I got in my car, turned my radio on, backed out, and then went home.

How to Avoid: While there’s no set rule for how many commas constitute too many, your eyes are the best judge of overuse. If you think you have too many in a single sentence, consider replacing a comma with a period to create separate sentences.


Commas (Eight Basic Uses)

To better understand the use of the comma, begin by learning the following eight basic uses:


USE A COMMA TO SEPARATE INDEPENDENT CLAUSES.

Rule: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet, so, or nor, for) when it joins two complete ideas (independent clauses).

1. He walked down the street, and then he turned the corner.

2. You can go shopping with me, or you can go to a movie alone.


USE A COMMA AFTER AN INTRODUCTORY CLAUSE OR PHRASE.

Rule: Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. A comma tells readers that the introductory clause or phrase has come to a close and that the main part of the sentence is about to begin.

1. When Evan was ready to iron, his cat tripped on the cord.

2. Near a small stream at the bottom of the canyon, park rangers discovered a gold mine.


USE A COMMA BETWEEN ALL ITEMS IN A SERIES.

Rule: Use a comma to separate each item in a series; a series is a group of three or more items having the same function and form in a sentence. The last comma — before the and — is optional. The biggest thing is to be consistent throughout a document. 

1. We bought apples, peaches, and bananas today. (series of words)

2. Mary promised that she would be a good girl, that she would not bite her brother, and that she would not climb onto the television. (series of clauses)

3. The instructor looked through his briefcase, through his desk, and around the office for the lost

grade book. (series of phrases)


USE COMMAS TO SET OFF NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSES.

Rule: Use commas to enclose clauses not essential to the meaning of a sentence. These nonessential clauses are called nonrestrictive. Clauses that are essential are called restrictive. Both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses may begin with a relative pronoun (such as who, whom, whose, that, which). A relative pronoun refers to the noun or pronoun that precedes it.

1. Steven Strom, whose show you like, will host a party next week. (nonrestrictive)

2. John, who spent the last three days fishing, is back on the job again. (nonrestrictive) 3. The gentleman who is standing by the fireplace is a well-known composer. (restrictive)


USE A COMMA TO SET OFF APPOSITIVES.

Rule: An appositive is a noun or a noun phrase that renames a nearby noun. Appositives offer nonessential information. Nonrestrictive appositives are set off with commas; restrictive appositives are not.

1. Alexander Pope, the Restoration poet, is famous for his monologues. (appositive)

2. The poet Pope is famous for his monologues. (no appositive)

3. The New York Jets, the underdogs, surprised everyone by winning the Super Bowl.

(appositive)


USE A COMMA TO INDICATE DIRECT ADDRESS.

Rule: When a speaker in the sentence names the person to whom he is speaking, this addressing of his audience is called direct address. Direct address is indicated by the use of a comma or commas, depending upon its placement within the sentence.

1. I think, John, you’re wrong. 2. John, I think you’re wrong. 3. I think you’re wrong, John.


USE COMMAS TO SET OFF DIRECT QUOTATIONS.

Rule: A dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. If the speaker (not the listener) in the conversation is identified, his name, (or the noun or pronoun used to refer to the speaker), and the verb that refers to his speaking is enclosed within commas.

1. Mary said, “I dislike concerts because the music is too loud.”

2. “I dislike concerts because the music is too loud,” she said.

3. “I dislike concerts,” proclaimed Mary, “because the music is too loud.”


USE COMMAS WITH DATES, ADDRESSES, TITLES, AND NUMBERS.

Rules for dates: In dates, the year is set off from the rest of the sentence with a pair of commas.

Ex: On December 12, 1890, orders were sent out for the arrest of Sitting Bull.

Rules for addresses: The elements of an address or place name are separated by commas. A zip code, however, is not preceded by a comma.

Ex: John Lennon was born in Liverpool, England, in 1940.

Ex: Please send the letter to Greg Carvin at 708 Spring Street, Washington, IL 61571.

Rules for titles: If a title follows a name, separate the title from the rest of the sentence with a pair of commas.

Ex: Sandra Belinsky, MD, has been appointed to the board.

Rules for numbers: In numbers more than four digits long, use commas to separate the numbers into groups of three, starting from the right. In numbers four digits long, a comma is optional.

Ex: 3,500 [or 3500] Ex: 100,000

Ex: 6,000,000


5. Excess Exclamation

The Problem: Too many exclamation points in a body of work overwhelm the reader and devalues each individual exclamation point.

Examples to avoid: Our products are the best! They really work! Get yours today!

How to Avoid: Be tasteful with your exclamation points. Save them only for the big points and for the ends of paragraphs, leaving the reader on a high note.


6. It’s versus Its

The Problem: It’s all too easy to misuse this word because its rules are different. (See what we did there?)

Examples to avoid: I don’t know who its going to hurt more, you or me. Look into it’s eyes.

How to Avoid: Remember that it’s is short for “it is” or “it has,” where the apostrophe designates a contraction and isn’t possessive. Although it can be confusing, the word its, as in “The dog lost its bone,” is possessive even though it doesn’t contain an apostrophe. A simple test is to see if you can substitute the word with “it is” or “it has.” If so, then “it’s” is correct. If not, then “its” is probably correct.


7. The Oxford Comma

The Problem: The lack of a consistent method for using commas in lists can be infuriating for grammar pros and casual readers alike. The Oxford comma, which is the comma before the final item in a list, is standard in British writing. In the United States, it has become commonplace to skip the last comma, especially in journalism, but the debate about which is right continues.

Example with an Oxford comma: My favorite foods are pizza, spaghetti, and steak.

Example without an Oxford comma: My favorite foods are pizza, spaghetti and steak.

How to Avoid: Our take? There’s no right or wrong when it comes to the Oxford comma. It’s a matter of preference. Just keep it consistent in everything you write.


8. Hyphen (-) vs. Dash (–)

The Problem: All horizontal lines in the text are not created equal.

Good example using a hyphen: Our products are built with high-grade steel.

Good example using a dash: I prefer chocolate milk – it’s tastier than plain milk. But I really like strawberry milk – although the pink color bothers me – because the taste seems richer.

How to Avoid: Use a hyphen (a small line) to combine two words to create a single idea. It’s most frequently used to combine two words into an adjective. Use a dash (a longer line with spaces before and after) to indicate that you’re moving onto a separate idea or train of thought.


9. Semi-colons versus Colons

The Problem: Semi-colons are often misused, particularly where a colon should be used.

Example to avoid: I brought three things; a toothbrush, a blanket, and a pillow.

Good example: I am glad to be going on vacation; I need the rest from work.

How to Avoid: Use a colon if you want to set o a list of items. If you want to separate two related but distinct thoughts, use a semi-colon. Or, in the case of semi-colons, consider a period instead to break the thought into two separate sentences.


Are you well on your way to completing the first draft of your manuscript? Did the common punctuation rules and mistakes leave you scratching your head? Now, you ask yourself, “Am I really going to remember all the punctuation rules? After all, I read information about it so I have the basics down.” I commend the effort. 

The Problem: Sentence-ending punctuation marks often go outside of quotation marks rather than inside, which is where they belong.

Example to avoid: “I had a great day at work today”!

Good example: “What time is it?”

How to Avoid: The punctuation is part of the text you’re quoting, so the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Note that in American English, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, while the British punctuate outside of the quotation marks. If you are on the Internet and see punctuation marks outside of the quote marks, the source could be British.






Are you well on your way to completing the first draft of your manuscript? Did the common punctuation rules and mistakes leave you scratching your head? Now, you ask yourself, “Am I really going to remember all the punctuation rules? After all, I read information about it so I have the basics down.” I commend the effort. But there are everchanging rules when it comes to writing. No one, and I mean no one, is going to remember them all, much less keep up with all of them when they change. (Hence, the rule about having two spaces after a period has vanished.)


Maybe punctuation is one of your strengths. But did you know it is nearly impossible to remember all of the rules when it comes to writing, much less, catch all of your own mistakes? Yup. Just because your brain knew what you meant to say, doesn't mean it’s actually what made it to the page. And your focus should be on writing, not if you should put the quotation marks before or after the period. 


That means you need to make sure you get some outside editing help.

Our editors at Self Publish -N- 30 Days will look at things like flow, readability, clarity of message from start to finish, consistency in voice, and does all the information included really belong there? And they check for punctuation mistakes! 


Editors will take an outsider’s point of view and will point out ideas that don't make sense or that aren't easy to understand. They look at punctuation and grammar in great detail. Commas, hyphens, spelling, including those tricky close spellings (homophones) like your and you're, are all things this editor will review.


We know writing and conversations are getting more casual. But, your manuscript needs to be your best professional effort and an editor will make sure it looks exactly as it should.


Proofreading is the last step in the writing and editing process. It may be combined with a late-stage copy edit, depending upon the manuscript and the author. A proofreader takes over and will try to achieve as clean a manuscript as possible by searching for typos, punctuation, and other fine detail errors.


Keep in mind that because they're looking at the small stuff, they are generally not going to deal with content or other structural problems. You will want those kinds of things settled long before this stage. You can learn all of the punctuation rules you want, but make sure you don’t skip editing.

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