Over the years as a writer and college instructor, I’ve come to conclude two very important things about punctuation: 1) it’s absolutely critical to good communication, and 2) many college graduates still struggle with it. Punctuation is a visual cue in our language that tells readers not only what the writer is saying, but how they are saying it. Punctuation affects not only clarity, but tone and personality. Used correctly, punctuation can make writing exciting, dynamic, and more personable. But used incorrectly, punctuation makes communication confusing. Perhaps more than anything else, when punctuation is used poorly, it is annoying and tacky, and it can really damage a writer’s credibility.
There’s more to punctuation, of course, than periods and question marks. Most of us know how to use those marks with our eyes closed. But I’m amazed at how often I see problems with apostrophes and hyphens and how few people actually know what an em dash or an ellipsis is. It’s also somewhat alarming how often commas are used when a semicolon should be used instead. To improve visual literacy (or, perhaps, just to help squelch a pet peeve of mine), I thought I’d list my top 10 most annoying misuses of punctuation.
For a bit of humor, you might check out a few more funny misuses of punctuation.
For tips on how to use punctuation marks check out our Punctuation Portal.
#10: Using Quotation Marks Inappropriately
Quotation marks have a cool and unique ability to imply sarcasm or to encourage readers to interpret the information for themselves. When used correctly, they are a valuable asset for humor and reader engagement. When used incorrectly, quotation marks raise suspicion and cause unintended gaffes. If a sign reads, Day Old “Bread”, example, you might wonder if it is actually bread, or some other substitute concoction. Here are a few glimpses into how quotation marks can sure make information seem goofy:
#9: Adding Extra Dots to Ellipses (…)
Ellipses are a valuable tool in writing. They allow the writer to omit words from direct quotes (not to change meaning of course, but to clarify and condense). When omitting text, three and only three dots should be used unless the omitted text coincides with the end of your sentence (then, there should be a fourth dot, which is actually a period). Where writers usually go wrong with ellipses is when they want to indicate trailing off in thought (as if going on some rant about misused punctuation…) When using the ellipsis to do that, still only use three dots! Trailing off with more than three is just plain tacky……
#8: Not Using En Dashes or Em Dashes (or using hyphens in their place)
En dashes are longer than hyphens but shorter than em dashes. En dashes are used to indicate a period of time, usually in place of the word “to”. So, if your résumé says you worked 2010 to 2012, it should look like this: 2010 – 2012. It should NOT look like this: 2010-2012. Em dashes—which are a sophisticated and useful form of punctuation to create sentence complexity—are longer than an en dash, usually the width of two hyphens, or the length of a capital “M”. Em dashes are often used like parentheses, but they emphasize information, rather than make it a side note (see previous sentence for its use).
#7: Not Hyphenating Two-Word Adjectives (modifiers)
Consider this sentence: “Please bring me a hot water bottle.” If someone wrote me that as instructions, I’d be confused. Do they need a bottle that holds hot water, or do they need a heated bottle? Technically, the way that sentence is written, the person literally needs a hot bottle. If they need a bottle that is made for holding hot water, however, there should be a hyphen between the two modifying terms, “hot” and “water” (a hot-water bottle). See? Confusion erased. Whenever you use multiple words to modify a noun, hyphens should connect the modifiers.
#6: Putting Apostrophes on Acronyms
Ack! This happens all too often and it is a sad (and costly) mistake when it ends up on a major sign or billboard. Remember the rule for apostrophes: they are for contractions (like “don’t” and “wasn’t”) and possession. Unless these DVDs own something, that apostrophe needs to disappear. You’ll run across this problem in some of the most unlikely places. Acronyms like “TV,” “CD,” and “VCR” don’t usually possess anything and will rarely need an apostrophe. Just stick an ‘s’ on the end (DVDs) and call it good.
#5: Overusing Exclamation Marks
A general rule of thumb is to only use one exclamation mark per document, if you use one at all. Rarely, if ever, will you want more than one exclamation mark side-by-side. Remember, when you emphasize everything on the same document, nothing becomes emphasized anymore. A bunch of exclamation marks just looks like you’re yelling (or being unknowingly obnoxious, which may be worse).
#4: Using Colons to Introduce Items
Colons are tricky but they definitely have a purpose if used well. But there is a misconception that every time you list a few items, a colon should go in front. You can reword the phrase to include a colon, but it changes the way the sentence is read. Here is an example of where most people go wrong and two ways to fix it (and notice my colon usages here as well):
INCORRECT: “I’m going to buy some: milk, flour, eggs, and soap.”
CORRECT: “I’m going to buy some milk, flour, eggs, and soap.”
CORRECT: “I need to buy a few key things: flour, milk, eggs, and soap.
#3: Putting Apostrophes on Last Names (when there shouldn’t be one)
Ah, yes, the old Christmas card apostrophe mistake. Remember (once again): apostrophes are for contractions (like “don’t” and “wasn’t”) and for possession. In a Christmas card, the last name will almost never need an apostrophe. And what if your last name ends in an ‘s’? Then you add an ‘es’ at the end of your name (so a card from a family with the last name “Curtis” should read “Merry Christmas from the Curtises”). If you don’t like how your last name looks with an “es” added to it, then reword the card to say something like “The Curtis Family.”
#2: Putting Apostrophes on Years
I’m not really sure how this ever became such a trend, but there is a widely spread (but incorrect) belief that apostrophes should be used when naming years (like “1950’s”). Remember (for the third time): apostrophes are for contractions (like “don’t” and “wasn’t”) and for possession. Unless a year owns something, it should not use an apostrophe. Rather, it should simply have the ‘s’ at the end: 1950s.
#1: Using Commas Instead of Semicolons
The number-one, most problematic punctuation problem I see is when two independent clauses (complete sentences) are connected with a comma. Yuck. Connecting two sentences with a comma is called a comma splice (a form of run-on sentence) and it makes reading clunky and hard to follow. If you have a subject and verb on one side of the sentence and a subject and verb on the other side, there needs to either be a semicolon or a period to separate the two. Example:
INCORRECT: The sun is bright today, we need to put on some sunscreen.
CORRECT: The sun is bright today; we need to put on some sunscreen.