Five Punctuation Errors Exploded

We had such great success with our Five Grammar Myths Exploded post, and I’m such an attention whore, that I wanted to follow up with Five Punctuation Errors Exploded. Plus, I’m a bit of a Word Nerd and Punctuation Prude (but not a Grammar Granny), that I wanted to talk about a few of the punctuation errors I see people make over and over.

Unfortunately, a lot of these errors are perpetuated by Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker. Others are perpetuated by English and writing teachers who are still teaching the same errors they learned when they were writing their lessons on slate tablets. And still others are inexplicable. No one knows why they do it, but they do it.

Here are the five most common ones I’ve seen.

1. Don’t use apostrophes for anything but possessive pluralization: This one sets my teeth on edge, more than any other. An apostrophe is absolutely, positively, without exception used to show possessive or contractions. It is never, ever, ever used to show plurals.

With one exception. (More on that in a minute.)

First, don’t write things like DVD’s, CDs, CEO’s, 1990’s, or any abbreviation or acronym. The proper pluralization is DVDs, CDs, CEOs, and 1990s. No question.

The one exception is if you are pluralizing a single letter. The Oakland A’s, five Model T’s.

So the rule for apostrophes is just to leave it out for plurals, unless you’re pluralizing a single letter.

(Update: More than a few people pointed out that apostrophes are also used for contractions, which I knew, but forgot to mention. Thanks for the reminder, everyone.)

2. I give a f— about the Oxford comma: This one is actually optional, but I love the Oxford Comma. So if you were to ask me the first line of the Oxford Comma song by Vampire Weekend, the answer is “I do!”

The Oxford comma — also called the Harvard comma or Serial comma — is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. Red, white, and blue. Moe, Larry, and Curly. That comma there before “and” is the Oxford comma.

There are some writing styles that forbid it, like AP Style. Others allow it, like MLA and APA.

The problem is some Oxford comma-haters will remove it as a knee jerk reaction. See an Oxford comma, yank it out. That leads to problems, like the famous example of the book author who wrote in his dedication, “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.” Or the gay church in Dallas that has “3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stemmed roses in the bathroom.”

Punctuation is designed to make language more readable and understandable. And sometimes removing a comma just because you’re “supposed to” can make the problem worse.

Bottom line: Using the Oxford comma isn’t wrong. It’s strictly a style issue.

3. Hyphens are dying: Some people say the hyphen is old-fashioned. Others would say it’s old fashioned. Either way, the hyphen is falling out of favor with most grammarians and editors. In fact, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, editors removed hyphens from 16,000 entries. An article in the BBC said words like fig-leaf, pot-belly, and pigeon-hole are now fig leaf, pot belly, and pigeonhole.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue is very thorough on the subject of hyphens. They have eight examples of when it should be used. The three most important are:

  • Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:

a one-way street
chocolate-covered peanuts
well-known author

  • However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

The peanuts were chocolate covered.
The author was well known.

  • Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters:

re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
semi-independent (but semiconscious)
shell-like (but childlike)

Unfortunately, there’s no one rule that will explain all hyphens. If you’re not sure what to do, check Purdue’s OWL.

4. Proper use of the en (–) and em (—) dash: I love dashes. More powerful than commas, but not as sentence-stopping as a period. An em dash — which is the really long dash; so called because it’s the approximate width of the letter m — is used to separate parenthetical thoughts in your writing.

The en dash — it’s the approximate width of the letter n — is used to show a range between numbers.

I will be in Orlando, Florida from January 21 – 28.
Admission is $3 for ages 4 – 12.

Create the em dash with SHIFT+OPT+hyphen (Mac)/CTRL+ALT+hyphen (Windows). Create the en dash with OPT+hyphen (Mac)/ALT+hyphen (Windows). You can also turn on “Create em dash” in Word; anytime you type a double dash (–), Word will replace it with an em dash.

The other question I see a lot is whether to put a space between the em dash and a word. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on whether to do it or not. The Chicago Manual of Style says there shouldn’t be any spaces—like this—between dashes and text. But the AP Stylebook — which is correct in all things except my beloved Oxford comma — says it’s okay to have a space between dashes and text (like I just did there).

The basic rule is the em dash is used in text, the en dash is used to show a range between numbers.

5. Punctuation always goes inside quotation marks: This is a simple one, but one that people don’t always understand. Basically, all punctuation goes inside quotation marks when you’re writing a quote.

“Where are you going?” she asked.
“None of your business!” he said.
“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said.

The punctuation in the last example is the one that usually trips people up. The entire sentence actually ends with “she said,” which is why the period goes at the very end. The actual quote — Jeez, you’re always such a jerk — ends with a comma, which goes inside the quote.

Now, if she says something else afterward, that’s actually a separate sentence, and doesn’t need a “she said” to go with it.

“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said. “I don’t know why I married you in the first place.”

Even other quotation marks will go inside the final quotation mark.

“And then I said, ‘that sounds like a load of BS!'” he shouted over the music.

Notice the use of the single quotation mark around ‘that sounds like a load of BS!’ That’s how you show you’re quoting something within another quote. But then if you look very closely at the end of the example, you’ll see the single quote and the double quote mashed together. It’s a little sloppy and hard to see, but that’s just how it is.

Bottom line: All punctuation goes inside a quotation mark, including other quotation marks.

(Special thanks to Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project for recommending this final item for the list.)

What about you? What are some of your punctuation pet peeves? What bugs you, or what do you struggle with? Leave a comment, and we’ll do a followup post.

Apostrophe photo: Melita Dennett
Comma photo: Leo Reynolds