How to Use Punctuation Correctly
With the ever-increasing popularity of email and texting, it seems that proper punctuation has become a casualty of the times. Although a relaxation of the rules may be acceptable in some circumstances, academic and business writing still require you to adhere to the standards of punctuation. The following 8 easy steps are designed to help you express yourself correctly and professionally.
1) Commas. Commas separate related ideas and tell your reader where to pause in the sentence. Misplaced commas can cause a good deal of confusion and can even make another point rather than the one you intended. Consider the following examples; the first is a verse from the King James Bible, and the second is from another translation. Here, the placement of the second comma makes a crucial difference:
“Verily, I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
“Verily, I say to you this day, you will be with me in Paradise.”
These were the words of Jesus to the thieves hung next to him on crosses. If you were one the thieves, the comma is very important indeed. In the first example, Jesus is saying that the thieves will be in Paradise with him immediately; but in the second sentence, he is simply saying, “Today I am telling you that you will be with me in Heaven, at some point.” It is a pretty important difference! The little comma dictates interpretation.
RULE: Use commas to separate related ideas, but be careful not to change the meaning of the sentence.
2) Periods are not commas. Period. Sometimes people with a hearty fear of the comma believe that they’ll be safe simply putting a period in any place where they feel unsure. This practice leads to awkward, stilted phrasing and sentence fragments:
“I had a dog once on a farm. When I was about ten years old.”
“My teacher was very interesting. A woman who had studied at Oxford for many years.”
In both of these examples, replace the period with a comma and make the next letter lowercase.
RULE: Do not use periods as commas!
3) To dash or not to dash. Some people use dashes all the time; others avoid them entirely. The dash can be a valuable tool when properly employed. It carries more emotional weight than a comma does, but it’s more informal than a colon. The dash can help you make a strong point that tells the reader, “Pay attention here.” For example, one might use a dash in this case: “His thoughts about women—if he had any thoughts at all—were not the kind expressed in polite company.”
RULE: Use dashes sparingly, but do use them when an important, related thought needs to be strongly conveyed.
4) Apostrophes. A frequent problem in writing is the misuse of apostrophes to indicate possession. Like the comma, the apostrophe in a possessive can lead to misunderstandings (sometimes comically so!). Usually the author is aware of the difference, but poor proofreading may cause problems. For example, consider these questions:
“Am I eating my dessert or the dog’s?”
“Am I eating my dessert or the dogs?”
In the first example, you can see that the possessive indicates that the person is questioning whether the dessert is for him or for the dog to eat. In the second, lack of possession makes it appear as if the person believes he might be eating dogs!
RULE: Make sure apostrophes are appropriately placed to indicate ownership.
5) Colons. Use a colon to introduce a list or to provide an example that is closely related to the clause before it. For example, one might say, “There are three things a painter requires: canvass, paint, and silence.” Or you can use a colon when you have something vivid to add to a point: “Even while they gathered and laughed, everyone at the baby shower withheld some information most knew: there was no discussion of the pain or trouble that the new mother would soon experience.”
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