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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Writer Mag Column 7: 5 Common Punctuation Mistakes

Five Scoops of Punctuation, Please: Avoid these common punctuation mistakes

Incorrect punctuation marks don’t bother the average person, but you’re not average. You’re a writer, and you know that if you abuse commas, em dashes, hyphens, quotation marks and apostrophes, your readers will moan and lament, screech aloud and vent—and if you annoy them enough, they might even throw your carefully plotted novel across the room. You ask, “All because of a misplaced apostrophe or an extra comma?” Yep, I’ve done it. (But I’m extra fussy.)

I can see how you might be careless with punctuation. I understand that it’s hard to remember what you learned in grade school. If you’re rusty, here are five scoops on five common punctuation errors. Not as yummy as ice cream, I know, but good for your sentence health.


Commas are complicated. Periods are easy (at least for men). Bottom line: You shouldn’t use commas instead of periods, that’s called a comma splice. Did you notice that comma splice I just used? How naughty of me.

As we all learned in first grade, you use a period to end a sentence. That’s pretty much all it’s good for. OK, you’re right: you do use periods in abbreviations and prices, but if you’re looking for information about periods in a style guide, you won’t have much to read. On the other hand, you can find entire books dedicated to all the rules about commas. Go ahead and buy one if you want a challenge. And don’t forget to read it.

These Criminal Sentences illustrate the comma splice problem:

Criminal Sentence 1 (From a flyer posted to my front door): “My name is Mickey, I painted the outside of a house in your neighborhood.”

Criminal Sentence 2 (From a Web site): “Loading, please wait…”

As far as the first sentence, Mickey may paint well, but because I’m a fussy grammarian, I could never hire him.

The second sentence leads me to another common comma problem. You’re supposed to use commas after salutations, as in “Hello, Bonnie.” Criminal Sentence 2 seems to address someone named Loading. This oddly named fellow has been instructed to wait, as in “Bonnie, please wait.”

“Loading. Please wait.” These are two separate ideas, and they need to be separated with a period, not a comma.

Em Dashes

Em dashes—those long lines that are paired up in this sentence—point your readers a certain way. If em dashes could talk, they would loudly alert readers, “Wait a second. I have something important to add here—something I can’t wait to tell you!” If you misuse them—or overuse them—your readers will get frustrated and annoyed. They won’t like being pointed at incorrectly or jabbed at so often.

Writers use these arrow-like punctuation marks to point out something abruptly—in the middle of a sentence or at the end. (You certainly can’t start a sentence with an em dash. That would be weird.) No matter where your em dashes appear, you can do a quick check to see if you’ve used them correctly. Just temporarily delete your abrupt aside. After all, it’s not crucial to the sentence’s core meaning, and you can put it back later.

Your em dashes are right if the sentence still makes sense when you delete the em dashes and everything between them: “I lost my scarf—now where could I have put it?—at the mall.” This sentence makes perfect sense without the intervening question. You could certainly complain, “I lost my scarf at the mall.” If you have a lone em dash at the end of the sentence, do the same thing; if the sentence still makes sense when you take away the em dash and the aside, you may proceed.

The uninitiated often use em dashes in place of periods, as in this incorrect sentence I’m writing now—they seem to think they can just separate sentences with an em dash and readers won’t mind—however, it’s not correct to do that. (Readers do mind.) Incidentally, as we’ve already seen, somebody once invented something that denotes the end of a sentence, and that thing is called a period. He’s a nifty guy. Keep him in mind every twenty words or so.

Some writers mistakenly use an em dash in a sentence like this one—annoying me to no end. (Hint: That was an incorrect em dash just now.) Guess what? There’s been another neat invention, and this one indicates a short pause in a sentence. That’s our friend the comma. We’ve already met him, and he likes being invited over often.

Em dashes like to be social, too, but not as much as commas or most other punctuation marks. Some writers, though—myself included—are partial to em dashes and use them as often as possible. (I admit that I should curb my liking for em dashes.) We don’t want readers complaining to themselves—or to others—that we’re pointing at them too much. It gets old after a while. So hold back if you’re an overuser.
Well, how many Auntie Ems are too many? Dorothy had only one, but you can have probably two or three every page or so—unless you’re feeling wicked and want to risk being squished by that falling house.

Here’s a test of your em dash strength:

In which sentence are em dashes used incorrectly?

1. I spent $1,000—can you believe it?—on shoes.

2. From shoes to scarves to hats—we have it all.

3. Don’t come around here anymore—unless you’re coming to pay back the money you owe me.

4. If you see her—or hear from her—please let me know.


Hyphens smooth things over for readers. They may be little, but they can make sentences more readable in a big way. By linking two or more words to describe something, hyphens prevent misunderstandings. If you wrote this sentence, for example, you could confuse your readers:

“The lion taunting zookeeper was arrested for animal cruelty.”

The sentence appears to be about a lion but is in fact about a wayward zookeeper. A little hyphen helps the sentence a lot:

“The lion-taunting zookeeper was arrested for animal cruelty.”

The hyphen links up the two words to make a compound.

Some writers put hyphens in the wrong places. You can’t create a hyphenated compound after the noun unless the word itself is always hyphenated. Notice this incorrect sentence:

“The inspection was poor-quality.”

You don’t need to link together the words “poor” and “quality” because it’s clear that they both refer to “inspection.” On the other hand, you do need a hyphen in this case:

“The poor-quality inspection cost the homeowner lots of money.”

Without the hyphen, the sentence might at first seem to be about “the poor.”

Now it’s your turn to be the hyphen police. Please take these two sentences into custody; once you fix them, you can release them on their own recognizance:

Criminal Sentence 3: The crazy haired copyeditor saw a punctuation mistake.

Criminal Sentence 4: My 18th century ring was stolen.

Quotation Marks

Here’s a short rant on overused quotation marks. If you’re trying to emphasize something, you “don’t need” to put it in quotation “marks.” Nine times out of ten, you use quotation marks to quote speech. Hence their name. They’re not called “highlight marks” or “colloquial expression” marks. If you want to highlight something, find a more natural way to do so.

One legitimate reason to use quotation marks around something that is not quoted speech is for cases when you want to be sarcastic or deceptive. So if your character is a teenager who told her mom that someone was a “friend,” in quotation marks, you’re informing readers that he wasn’t just a friend. He was a boyfriend and the character didn’t want her mom to find out.

Don’t do what these criminals did or I’ll have to “come after you”:

Criminal Sentence 5: How do you “get over” a mistake that cost another person’s life?

Criminal Sentence 6: Come in for your “free” sandwich.


I get a little bent out of shape about those little bent things called apostrophes. My husband rolls his eyes whenever I whine about misplaced punctuation, but I have to wince when I see sock’s for sale at the swap meet. You’re sock’s irritate me. Don’t they irritate you, too? If they don’t, I’d like to change that.

Merchants mess up apostrophes simply because punctuation is unimportant to them. Prices and inventory are what matter. Fine. I’ll just have to avoid fresh produce from now on. Writers, on the other hand, should be able to handle these little punctuation marks.

Our apostrophe pals serve two main purposes: to indicate possession and to create a contraction. Let’s start with possession. I’m sure you’re aware that an apostrophe attaches to a noun—not to an adjective or a verb. The tricky part is to pay attention to whether the noun is singular or plural. Use an apostrophe plus an “s” to indicate a singular person or thing is possessing something. For example, if you’re writing about the rolling eyes of my husband, you should write “my husband’s rolling eyes” (and then later “my husband’s tired eyes”).

When you have a plural person or thing, use an “s” plus an apostrophe (or an “s” plus an apostrophe “s” if you like that style). You couldn’t write “my husbands’ rolling eyes,” though, because that would be illegal. On the other hand, if the husbands of more copy editors become impatient, it would be OK to write “the husbands’ rolling eyes” or “our husbands’ tired eyes.” An easy way to check if you’ve placed the apostrophe correctly is to temporarily rearrange the phrase by using an “of”: “the punctuation of the sentence” (“the sentence’s punctuation”); “the punctuation of the sentences” (“the sentences’ punctuation”).

Now on to contractions—just try to breathe. It’ll all be over very soon. Unlike labor contractions, contractions of words are short. “We’ll” is a shortened “we will”; “he’ll” is the contraction of “he will.” These words mean something totally different without the apostrophe. The contraction you should be most wary of is “it’s,” short for “it is.” The young and the careless always confuse “it’s” (contraction) with “its” (possessive adjective). Please be old and careful, and remember that possessive adjectives, such as “your,” “hers” and “their,” never use an apostrophe.

The best way to avoid apostrophe errors with contractions is to avoid contractions altogether. Well, I guess that won’t work. The next best way is to just stop and double-check yourself by spelling out the contracted words. For example, if your sentence is “Let’s check our apostrophes,” you know you’re right because you can say, “Let us check.” If your sentence is “My mom never let’s me eat ice cream,” you know you’re wrong because you can’t say, “My mom never let us me.”

Please fix the poor, sick apostrophes in these three Criminal Sentences:

Criminal Sentence 7: “I lived in my parent’s house when I was a child.”

Criminal Sentence 8: “It take’s dedication and lots of practice.”

Criminal Sentence 9: “Lets make 2009 an active and healthy year!”

Now that you’ve read and learned all about these friendly and useful punctuation marks, give yourself a round of applause. Next, I think you should indulge in a real scoop of ice cream—as long as you promise to use commas, em dashes, hyphens, quotation marks and apostrophes correctly.

P.S. Write me at with the answers to today’s questions, and tell me what flavor of ice cream you like best. I like peanut butter and chocolate.



Criminal Sentence 1: “My name is Mickey. I painted the outside of a house in your neighborhood.”

Criminal Sentence 2: “Loading. Please wait…”

Em Dashes

Em dashes are used incorrectly in Sentence 2: “From shoes to scarves to hats—we have it all.” You can’t say only “From shoes to scarves to hats.” You need to use a comma instead of the em dash: “From shoes to scarves to hats, we have it all.” Another option is to turn things around: “We have it all—from shoes to scarves to hats.” “We have it all” could stand by itself.


Criminal Sentence 3: The crazy-haired copyeditor saw a punctuation mistake.

Criminal Sentence 4: My 18th-century ring was stolen.

Quotation Marks

Criminal Sentence 5: How do you get over a mistake that cost another person’s life?

Criminal Sentence 6: Come in for your free sandwich. (Quotation marks around “free” suggest that the sandwich isn’t really free.)


Criminal Sentence 7: “I lived in my parents’ house when I was a child.”

Criminal Sentence 8: “It takes dedication and lots of practice.”

Criminal Sentence 9: “Let’s make 2009 an active and healthy year!”

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