How many times have you misplaced a comma, forgotten where to use a semicolon, or tried in vain to understand the difference between an em dash and an en dash? Don’t worry, it’s not just you. There are specific rules for punctuation, but when people aren’t confident in those rules, they tend to sprinkle in punctuation liberally — and sometimes incorrectly. Let’s look at some of the most common — and perhaps most egregious — punctuation blunders.
We blame the trend of “air quotes” for all of the unnecessary quotation marks in the world.
You use quotation marks with direct quotes, titles, dialogue, nicknames, and sometimes to imply a hidden meaning. But for some reason, people like to use quotation marks where they really don’t belong, usually to place emphasis on a “certain” word or phrase. (Those quotation marks are unnecessary.)
For instance, you don’t need them on signage at your store unless you are directly quoting your latest positive review. No one is quoting that “bananas” are on sale. And if you claim that something is “sugar-free,” your friends might wonder whether it’s really safe for a diabetic, or if you’re playing some kind of tasteless joke.
Apostrophes are for possessives and contractions. And yet, how many times do you see someone use them for plurals or last names? Sometimes the lack of an apostrophe can make a word look odd, but resist the urge to use an apostrophe. It’s not “menu’s,” because the menu doesn’t own anything. If it’s a plural, it’s not necessary.
Likewise, last names can be confusing when they end in “S.” But that doesn’t mean you’re keeping up with the Jones’s. They’re Joneses because the plural -es rule applies here. However, if you’re trying to say something belongs to Mr. Jones, that item is Mr. Jones’s.
Hyphen mistakes are a lot like apostrophe mistakes. Hyphens have a proper place, but it seems to confuse people. The most common CORRECT use of hyphens is with compound modifiers. When two or more descriptive words are modifying another word, you use a hyphen to turn those words into a compound modifier.
Unlike compound modifiers, compound words do not use a hyphen, and that’s where most people fall into trouble.
A compound word is when you take two words and combine them into one word with a unique meaning. Red and head, for example.
Example: The redhead ran home to eat his favorite dinner.
Commas seem to be everyone’s nemesis. There are so many correct usages for commas, but let’s go over a couple of the most common mistakes.
1) Don’t use a comma after a conjunction in a compound sentence.
Incorrect: They asked him to go but, he didn’t want to join them.
Correct: They asked him to go, but he didn’t want to join them.
A compound sentence is joining two phrases that could function on their own as a complete sentence. The comma + conjunction (but, and, or) is replacing the period. You also don’t need to use a comma if the second phrase (dependent clause) is not a complete sentence on its own.
Example: He thought about going to the party but decided not to.
2) Remember to set off nonessential words or phrases by commas.
Incorrect: My favorite dress unfortunately shrank in the dryer.
Correct: My favorite dress, unfortunately, shrank in the dryer.
The commas are indicating the sentence would still make sense without that word.
How many of these mistakes have you spotted in the wild? Make sure to keep your red pen at the ready to correct these common punctuation mistakes.
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