The purpose of punctuation isn’t to trouble us with pointless, hard-to-remember rules but to increase the clarity of our writing.
With this in mind I invite you to test your grasp of punctuation basics by taking a short, ten-item quiz. Keep in mind, there is one thing wrong with each numbered item. Find it and make a mental correction (paper and pencil are not required). This will be simple for some and more challenging for others. In all cases, reviewing the explanations below ought to reinforce your punctuation skills. Have fun. (And feel free to like, share, or make a comment.)
- Let me tell you Babette that I really liked Lady Goo-Goo’s fabulous costume.
- We hope you can go with my husband, Bob and me to the hootenanny on Friday.
- My exciting new diet includes a tasty lunch every day; celery sticks and water.
- I overslept today and missed the bus, it’s time for an alarm clock.
- Please pass the potatoes”, I said. “They’re gone”, they said. “You ate them before dinner”.
- You should have seen the hundred’s of bargain hunter’s waiting to stampede through the door’s at Mall-Wart last Friday.
- After dinner at my mothers house we went to get in line for an all-night vigil at Mall-Wart.
- I don’t know if I’ll get a Christmas bonus this year? The boss might be selling the business?
- If you hire me for the job I’ll give you my “best” effort.
- When you come visit we’ll go to Disneyland after that we’ll go to Knott’s Berry Farm.
(1) Commas are always used in direct address: Let me tell you, Babette, that I really liked . . . Similar direct addresses: Thank you, Jack. Happy birthday, Jill. Pete, let’s go to the movies.
(2) Words and phrases that are grammatically not essential to the meaning of a sentence are set off with a pair of commas: We hope you can go with my husband, Bob, and me to the hootenanny on Friday. Bob is set off with two commas. You could leave Bob out and the sentence would still make grammatical sense. Therefore, Bob is considered nonessential information.
(3) We always use a colon to indicate that something follows—not a semicolon. The sentence should be punctuated thus: My exciting new diet includes a tasty lunch every day: celery sticks and water.
(4) This error—extremely common on social media—is called a comma splice, where the lowly comma is asked to perform above its pay grade. We don’t join two (or more) independent clauses with commas alone. As the comma splice is similar to the run-on sentence, see number ten below for three basic options for correcting this type of error.
(5) In American English, punctuation is almost always inside the quotation marks. In particular, commas and periods always go inside quotation marks: Please pass the potatoes,” I said. “They’re gone,” they said. “You ate them before dinner.”
(6) Do we use apostrophes to make singular words plural (i.e., by adding an –s)? No, no, and no, for pity’s sake, please and thank you. You should have seen the hundreds of bargain hunters waiting to stampede through the doors at Mall-Wart last Friday.
(7) This sentence grammatically begs the reader on its knees to ask, “How many mothers does the writer have?” Now, I know it’s possible to have more than one woman known as “mother” in one’s life, and it’s possible that all of them live together in the same house. But God gave us punctuation to make sentences more readable. Therefore the sentence should read, After dinner at my mother’s [singular possessive] house we went to get in line for an all-night vigil at Mall-Wart.
(8) These two “questions” aren’t questions at all. They are indicative statements with a question mark improperly hung on the end. We use a question mark for only two reasons: to ask yes-no questions and to ask information questions. Usually, some form of the verb to be is part of a yes-no question: Is it raining? Are you going to work today? Will Mall-Wart be open on Christmas day? Am I a turkey? This is pretty simple, right? Of course, yes-no questions frequently cannot be answered simply yes or no. Often the answer is maybe, or I don’t know.
Information questions seek, well . . . information: Who lives in Who-ville? Why does the rain in Spain fall mainly on the plain? How often does this wonderful blog writer post new essays?
(9) The writer’s intent was to emphasize the word “best.” But good writers don’t use quotation marks to emphasize a word or words. Why? Because quotation marks indicate either a direct quote or a word is being used in an unconventional way—perhaps to convey irony or sarcasm. In this sentence the word “best” with quotation marks tells us that writer doesn’t mean best at all—in fact, she probably means far less than best and perhaps even the opposite of best. If you really want to emphasize a word, use italics or underline it, but it’s best to do so sparingly.
(10) When two independent clauses (i.e., complete sentences) are fused together without the benefit of appropriate punctuation, it is called a run-on sentence. (Note: run-on sentences aren’t really long sentences that run on and on and on. Those are simply long sentences.) In the quiz example, there are three possible ways to fix it:
Fix #1: Use a period to separate the independent clauses. When you come visit we’ll go to Disneyland. After that we’ll go to Knott’s Berry Farm.
Fix #2: Insert a comma + conjunction. When you come visit we’ll go to Disneyland, and after that we’ll go to Knott’s Berry Farm.
Fix #3: Since the two clauses are closely related, you can separate them with a semicolon. When you come visit we’ll go to Disneyland; after that we’ll go to Knott’s Berry Farm.
Any of these possibilities is acceptable—whichever the writer prefers.
Do you see other common punctuation errors? Let me know. If this was helpful to you, please share it!
 With only one comma, grammatically the entire phrase following the comma is the husband’s name: Bob and me to the hootenanny on Friday. An odd name indeed! The opposite problem is to leave off the comma altogether, which would imply that the writer has more than one husband and the name of this one is Bob.
 In British English, commas and periods usually go outside quotation marks. Remember that when writing your friends across the Pond.
 Before anyone gets uppity and comments on the absurdity of God’s giving humanity punctuation, let me state that I’m kidding. You’re welcome. And, by the way, if the writer indeed meant that he visited his several mothers at their commonly shared home, it still requires an apostrophe after the -s: “After dinner at my mothers’ house . . .”
© 2016 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.