Five Common Punctuation Errors to Avoid

Do you struggle with any of these?

exclamation point

Whether you’re an employee writing a business letter, report, or memo; a job seeker crafting a cover letter to submit with an application; a student working on a dreaded writing assignment for class; or a social-media poster, you’ll want to avoid these common punctuation errors.

1. Quotation marks inside of punctuation. Ninety-nine percent of quotation marks in American English go outside of adjacent punctuation*—specifically, commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points. For example,

“It’s time to take the quiz,” said the teacher, “so please close and put away your books.” The quotation marks after quiz and books are outside the comma and the period.

“Have you put away your books yet?” asked the teacher. “Yes, we have!” exclaimed the students. Here the quotation marks properly go outside the question mark and the exclamation point.

There are exceptions, however (aren’t there always?). When a question is asked about a quoted statement, the question mark goes outside the quotation mark. “Did I hear the teacher say, ‘It’s time to take the quiz’”? See the question mark? The questioner is asking about something the teacher said—which was a statement, not a question—so the question mark here goes outside the quotation marks. “Duh! The teacher said, ‘It’s time to take the test’”! The responder is answering in an exclamatory manner while quoting the teacher’s exact words, hence the exclamation point after the quotation marks.

As a general rule, it’s safe to say that quotation marks never go inside of periods and commas in American English. Or to state it positively—periods and commas always go inside of quotation marks. There are exceptions, but remember the general rule.

Semicolon2. Semicolons used instead of colons. A semicolon is used primarily for joining two related independent clauses together without using a period or a comma + conjunction. Remember, an independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought. You can see an example of the proper use of a semicolon in the next section on comma splices, so I won’t elaborate further. But the important thing to keep in mind is not to use a semicolon where a colon should be used—a common mistake. A colon is used mainly to tell your reader that something follows, and it should be placed after a complete sentence (or independent clause). For example,

“All job applicants who are invited for an interview must remember two important things: dress appropriately and show up on time.”

All that precedes the colon is a complete sentence. “All job applicants . . . must remember two important things.” But that leaves the reader hanging, waiting for more, and asking silently, “What ‘important things’ do I need to remember?” The colon tells her the suspense is only momentary: to “dress appropriately and show up on time.” Don’t confuse the semicolon with the colon since they have very different functions.

Oh, another common use for the semicolon is to promote tidiness in long, complex lists: “Growing up, I lived in London, England; London, Ontario, Canada; and London, Kentucky.”

comma-2426854_960_7203. Comma splices. A comma splice occurs when a comma—dainty critter that it is—is called on to perform heavy-duty punctuation beyond its pay grade: ending complete sentences. Here’s an example:

“I graduated with honors from the university last year, it was tempting to go straight into a master’s program, I wanted to get real-world job experience first.”

There are two comma splices joining together three independent clauses. The writer should have used periods in place of the commas, OR a period and a semicolon, OR a period and a comma + conjunction. Here’s what those three options look like:

• “I graduated with honors from the university last year. It was tempting to go straight into a master’s program. I wanted to get real-world job experience first.”
• “I graduated with honors from the university last year. It was tempting to go straight into a master’s program; I wanted to get real-world job experience first.” (A semicolon joins two related clauses together without using a period or a comma + conjunction.)
• “I graduated with honors from the university last year. It was tempting to go straight into a master’s program, but [comma + conjunction] I wanted to get real-world job experience first.”

Any of those three sentences would be fine.

runner4. Run-on sentences. This problem is similar to the comma splice except that instead of two or more complete thoughts (i.e., independent clauses) being separated by mere commas, in a run-on there is no separating punctuation at all. This is a perfect way to cause confusion and headaches for your reader. Consider this example:

“Poor Humpty fell off the wall he broke into a hundred pieces.”

Okay, wait. So did Humpty break into a hundred pieces when he fell off the wall, or did Humpty break the wall into a hundred pieces when he fell off? Let me exert a little gut-busting effort here and insert a period to clear things up:

“Poor Humpty fell off the wall. He broke into a hundred pieces.” There—so much better!

Proper punctuation makes our writing more clear and therefor aids our readers’ understanding. That’s its purpose.

5. Inappropriate use of the apostrophe. This is one of my pet peeve’s, so in one of my future post’s, Ill discuss it in more detail. Ill bet you cant wait! (Yes, I intended to write these sentences as they are. As a joke. What do you mean you’re “not laughing”?)

Until then, here’s one important no-no for apostrophes: don’t use an apostrophe to make a plural (as in, “This is one of my pet peeve’s.” No. Please don’t. Thank you.)

So there you have it: five common punctuation errors to avoid. Happy writing!

What common punctuation errors have you seen? Post a comment and let me know. Δ


*This 99% statistic is made up—but it’s probably close to the truth. It may even be a bit low in American English. British English is quite a different bloody matter, bloke, and is a topic for another day.
© 2017 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, voiceover guy, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, classical music aficionado, appreciator of classic rock 'n' roll and classic movies, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning.

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