Ah, punctuation errors. Once a missed keystroke on a typewriter, now the fodder of Internet memes, viral screenshots, and endless Tumblr posts. We’ve all seen the public restrooms reserved for elderly pregnant disabled children, the unsettling connotations of a restaurant that serves “fresh” sushi, the PR disasters that could have been averted with critical commas. In an online world where every little mistake is photographed and shared, understanding punctuation is more important than ever to maintain a credible reputation.
1. Obey the Terminator
Terminal punctuation can seem like a no-brainer, and it’s for this very reason that many mistakes occur. Sometimes we overlook glaring errors simply because they’re so obvious. We assume we haven’t made them and don’t think to check. There are, of course, guidelines to keep in mind: Exclamation points in sequence are the written equivalent of shouting (right up there with all caps); some indirect questions actually end in periods, not question marks; and different styles of writing use different rules for terminal punctuation in quotes, parentheses, or abbreviations. The bottom line? Proofread!
2. A comma, a comma. My kingdom for a comma!
This little devil is the culprit in the most infamous punctuation blunders. Commas can be tricky things, what with the many, many rules that apply to their usage. Some of the more common gaffes are forgetting to include a comma between items in a list, after introductory phrases, or between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. If you’re thinking those mistakes sound innocent enough, take a look at the magazine cover that declares that Rachael Ray finds happiness in cooking her family and her dog. Although the cover was found to have been Photoshopped, this punctuation error is easy to make, so be vigilant!
3. Say “no” to sketchy quotation marks
I’ll say this once: Never use quotation marks for emphasis. Inappropriate use of these teeny little marks creates a written implication that something is, well, questionable. If the text at hand isn’t actually a quotation or the title of a work, using quotation marks brings to mind the image of someone saying the word or phrase while employing air quotes and waggling their eyebrows. Would you eat at a grill serving “beef” steaks?
4. Hyphens and en dashes and em dashes—oh my!
Finding error in the length of horizontal lines may seem like nitpicking. Many won’t even realize these little dashes are different! However, ignoring the circumstances that call for hyphens, en dashes, or em dashes can lead to embarrassing changes in the meaning of a written phrase. As a cheat sheet: Em dashes (the longest of the three, equal in length to the typed letter m) are used in place of commas or parentheses to create emphasis. En dashes (equal in length to the letter n) connect values or ranges (e.g., 2002–2008), and hyphens join words that are logically connected (e.g., state-of-the-art, anti-war, long-term relationship).
5. Don’t eclipse the ellipsis
(For those of you who don’t get the reference, check out this YouTube clip, and go watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show as soon as you finish this article!)
Ellipses, consisting of three periods in succession, are useful tools that allow writers to indicate an omission (usually in quoted text), the trailing-off of a thought, or a hesitation. As with exclamation points, the rule of less is more applies. A page overzealously spotted and dotted with ellipses will only look messy.
6. Apostrophe catastrophe
Pet peeve of editors, proofreaders, and grammar gurus worldwide is the misguided use of apostrophes to form plural nouns. Let’s take a moment to be absolutely clear: Apostrophes denote ownership or conjoined words; never should an -s at the end of a plural noun be preceded by an apostrophe. So please, noble writer, apostrophize the teacher’s office, the dog’s bowl, and let’s get out of here, but stay your hand when telling us about the 1980s or dinner with the Andersons.
7. Serious about semicolons
(This is another reference for film buffs; if you don’t get the above reference, you’ll enjoy it more after checking out this YouTube clip from the 1976 movie Network.)
Semicolons represent a pause longer than that of a comma but shorter than the full stop of a period. Before you start applying semicolons willy-nilly, however, remember some simple rules: Use a semicolon to join two sentences without a conjunction; before transitional phrases, such as meanwhile, however, and for example, when they connect independent clauses into a single sentence; and in lists of this sort that include commas within list elements.
8. The dreaded grammatical colonoscopy
The colon means serious business. Mild toilet humor aside, the use of a colon in writing is a signal that something important is about to follow. Use a colon to introduce a list, to lead into a second sentence that explains or adds to the first without using a conjunction, or simply to add emphasis to whatever follows. To make sure your colon is clean (ew), you may wish to consult your style guide about whether the sentence following the colon requires capitalization.