Don’t think punctuation is a big deal? Think again:
A comma can be the difference between animal cruelty and disco-dancing seals. Punctuation needs to be taken seriously. In the right hands, it wields great power, but it can wreak havoc when used incorrectly.
Like grammar, punctuation helps to ensure clarity in your writing. It’s also a bit like dressing up for an interview--it’s part of your presentation and professionalism, a way to show the reader that you care about how your message is conveyed.
Punctuation might give novice writers some anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be so daunting.
In her blog, Sin & Syntax, Constance Hale provides a primer for all punctuation marks, along with her biggest pet peeves surrounding their misuse. It’s in your best interest to heed her advice and avoid irritating your reader.
The Period (.)
A period marks the end of a sentence. The only common misuse of the period is when writers put them at the end of a sentence fragment. Every complete sentence must have a subject and a verb.
“Pet peeve #1: Unless you are using a sentence fragment for stylistic reasons, don’t put a period after a group of words that is just a phrase. Example: A bad thing.”
The Semicolon (;)
Semicolons are typically used to combine two complete sentences (sometimes called “independent clauses”).
It’s ideal if the two sentences or clauses have some correlation; if they don’t, then the semicolon doesn’t seem as appropriate.
Semicolons also act like commas in a complicated list that already contains commas, such as:
There were citizens from Bangor, Maine; Hartford, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; and Newport, Rhode Island.
“Pet peeve #2: Using a comma where a semicolon is required. Example: He intended to propose, she intended to ditch him at the next turn.”
The Colon (:)
Use a colon before a list or an explanation that is preceded by an independent clause. Think of the colon as a gate, inviting one to go on:
There is only one thing left to do now: confess while you still have time.
The charter review committee now includes the following people:
the chief of police
the fire chief
the chair of the town council
You will often use a colon to separate an independent clause from a quotation that the clause introduces:
The director often used her favorite quotation from Shakespeare's Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
“Pet peeve #3: Using a colon when a verb already does the introducing, making the colon redundant. Example: My favorite dances are: hula, the waltz, and the Cha Cha.”
The Comma (,)
Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things), including the last two. Make sure your list utilizes parallelism:
He hit the ball, dropped the bat, and ran to first base.
Use a comma + a conjunction to connect two independent clauses:
He hit the ball well, but he ran toward third base.
Use a comma to set off introductory elements:
Running toward third base, he suddenly realized how stupid he looked.
Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements:
The Founders Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River, is falling down.
By “parenthetical element,” we mean a part of a sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of that sentence.
Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives.
That tall, distinguished, good looking fellow
Use a comma to set off quoted elements:
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many things.”
“Pet peeve #4: Dropping commas after long introductory phrases. Example: In the case of my great aunt the family just decided she was too wacky to listen to.”
Exclamation mark (!)
Exclamation marks express surprise or excitement, and they should be used sparingly in most pieces of writing.
“Pet peeve #5: Overly enthusiastic use. Example: I get this! I really get this punctuation thing!”
If you make sure to avoid these punctuational faux pas, you’ll leave a much stronger impression on the reader. Don’t be sloppy or careless, or you might risk undermining an otherwise brilliant essay. And that’s the truth -- period.
As always, it’s highly recommended.