Punctuation. Oh boy.
To non-writers, it’s a wonky bore. They’re half-right: It is wonky. But to some of us in the editing game, the very wonkiness of punctuation is what makes it exciting. Just think: One of the most consequential decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history, District of Columbia v. Heller (2007), came down to the placement of the second comma in the Second Amendment.
I get chills just thinking about that.
And who hasn’t chuckled at the punctuation memes that float around the internet? Perhaps the most ubiquitous is the terrifying “Let’s eat Grandpa / Let’s eat, Grandpa,” with the declaration, “Commas save lives.”
You can see, then, that proper punctuation is essential in having your message understood. Do it right, and your meaning is clear; do it wrong, and the reader will be stumbling about, grasping at your meaning like someone searching for the light switch in a dark room.
Many punctuation errors are less obvious to the untrained eye. I’m going to give you just three that can stick out and make you look downright amateurish:
My 3 Pet Punctuation Peeves
Does a word become “more important” by capitalizing it? No, It Does Not. Stick to the simple rule that only proper nouns get capitalized.
What about job titles? The common rule is to capitalize them only when they come before the person’s name. Thus: The president will speak to employees at noon today. / Ann Jones, president, will speak to employees at noon today. / President Jones will speak to employees at noon today.
Excess exclamation points!!!!!
Language authorities are only half-kidding when they tell us to limit the exclamation point to once every 10,000 words. I know — it’s tempting to bump up the excitement by adding a “banger” to a sentence. But that’s not what the exclamation point is for. Use it to express emotion, not to add it.
Next time you’re tempted, remember the episode of the old Seinfeld sitcom in which Elaine is taken to task by her boss at the publishing house for adding egregious exclamation points to a novel. “I was cold, so I decided to put on a sweater!”
This has become increasingly common lately — or maybe I’ve just started noticing it more. As in this:
Two clauses are spliced together with a comma, it’s a puzzling habit that makes no sense to me.
Call it a comma splice or a run-on sentence; either way, it’s wrong. The proper way to splice two independent clauses together is to use a semi-colon. Or a period. Period.
Is It Time to Admit You Have a Problem?
Perhaps you recognize yourself as one of the repeat offenders here; in that case, please stop before you mispunctuate again. If you’re ready to seek treatment, the best place to start is Lynne Truss’ hilarious and yet informative 2003 best-seller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Then, the next time you read someone else’s work, scrutinize the punctuation and see if it helps or hurts your understanding of the message.