Here's the scoop: Avoid these common punctuation mistakes and keep your readers happy
ONLINE COLUMN: Watch Your Language
Published: September 3, 2009
When you're thinking about story structure and other big-picture elements, I can see how you might be careless with something as seemingly small as punctuation. But good punctuation helps your readers understand your meaning, and bad punctuation can leave them confused. If readers have to stop and reread your sentences to figure out what you tried to say, they might eventually stop reading your work altogether.
If your punctuation's rusty, don't worry. I understand that it's hard to remember what you learned in grade school. Here's the scoop on common punctuation errors (not as yummy as ice cream, I know):
Commas are complicated. You can find entire books dedicated to all the rules about them, but here we'll concentrate on two of the big mistakes writers make with commas. First, 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.)
These sentences illustrate the comma splice problem:
Sentence 1: "My name is Mickey, I painted the outside of a house in your neighborhood."
Sentence 2: "Loading, please wait …"
Sentence 2 leads me to the second common comma problem. You're supposed to use commas after salutations, as in "Hello, Bonnie." Sentence 2 seems to address someone named Loading. This oddly named fellow has been instructed to wait, as in "Bonnie, please wait."
These are two separate ideas, and they need to be separated with a period, not a comma: "Loading. Please wait."
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.)
Some writers—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. You can have probably two or three em dashes every page or so. Hold back if you're an overuser.
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."
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 10, 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.
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.
Apostrophes 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. The contraction you should be most wary of is "it's," short for "it is." People often confuse "it's" (contraction) with "its" (possessive adjective). 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."
Now that you've brushed up on your punctuation marks, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments, and tell me what flavor of ice cream you like best. I like peanut butter and chocolate.
Bonnie Trenga is the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing, available for purchase online and at bookstores nationwide. She blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, which features the daily Criminal Sentence and other posts about writing. She is also a guest writer for the popular Grammar Girl podcast. She's been a copy editor since 1996 and a mom since 2001. You can reach her at email@example.com.
--Posted Sept. 3, 2009