Top Punctuation Problems

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Published: 09th July 2012
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As part of my editorial duties at a social media agency, I review a large amount of copy on a daily basis. While all writing is prone to punctuation errors, social media seems to be particularly susceptible, mainly because of its more familiar tone and the instant nature of its publication. This has spurned me to revisit the basics and examine the main ways in which improper punctuation can cause trouble in writing of all types.

Many books, such as Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which makes a compelling case for the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), have highlighted the importance of punctuation in creating clear and understandable copy. Misplaced full stops, semicolons, apostrophes, and other marks undermine the integrity of your writing and the authority of your voice. Here is a quick overview of some of the most common mistakes.

Lapsing into a Comma
Commas can change the meaning of your phrase quite dramatically and sometimes the usage of the Oxford comma can clear things up nicely. Take this sentence, for example: “My inspiration for this project came from my parents, Margaret Thatcher and Wayne Rooney.” The way this is written could suggest an unholy union between the politician and the footballer. Adding a simple serial comma could clear that right up, and save us all from some disturbing mental images.

Another popular misuse of the comma is for parenthetical statements. Many people will rightly cushion the statement with an opening comma, but then forget to encapsulate it with a closing comma or vice versa. For example, consider this sentence: “My colleague, who likes roast beef sandwiches, was the first in line at the deli.” The statement about the sandwiches is purely parenthetical, extra information that is not really necessary to the meaning of the sentence. It could be removed without a big hubbub. However, if you were to omit the first comma, it would take a different meaning: “My colleague who likes roast beef sandwiches, was the first in line at the deli.” This might imply that this colleague is different from all the others, identifiable by their love for a certain type of sandwich.

An important point along these lines is that the word “which” is often used in this manner, as a non-restrictive clause that adds supplementary information to a sentence. As such, it should always be surrounded by commas.

Apostrophe Apocalypse
The advent of smartphones and texting has endangered the apostrophe. It really can be a drag when you are punching in messages on your phone to take the time to switch modes or screens and enter the appropriate apostrophes. Everyone knows what you meant to say, right? Perhaps it can be forgiven when texting with friends, but it has started spilling over into everyday writing, and that is a big problem.

Consider these words: Its/it’s and were/we’re. Leaving out the apostrophe changes the entire meaning of the word, so no, no one knows what you meant to say.

Misplacing apostrophes can be similarly problematic. Look out for these classic mistakes:
• Their, there, they’re
• Were, where, we’re
• Your, you’re
• Misplaced apostrophes that meddle with possessives (writing “the brands’ campaign” when you meant it to be singular) or create possession when you really meant the word to be plural. “The shop is offering a sale on shirt’s.”

Of course, there are thousands of other issues at stake when it comes to properly punctuating your prose. You can avoid a potential social media crisis by making sure your writing is clear and correct – just ask Mitt Romney about his plans for Amercia.

Since I also do a lot of editing for the SEO agency side of things, I will be addressing particular considerations for creating compelling writing with an SEO benefit in the future. Stay tuned for the next instalment!

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