I sigh each time I have to correct one of my assistant's blog posts, editing out the numerous extra commas and apostrophes. (She obviously goes with the rule: when it doubt stick one in for good luck.) But rather than ask her to be more careful yet again, I thought that I should try to explain exactly when, where and why to use these little squiggles.
I say try because although I am quite proud of my own punctuation, spelling and grammar, I discovered that explaining something which is just habit is pretty difficult. While I can look at a paragraph and whip my red pen across the page quite sure in my choice of which of the devils deserve to be eliminated, there are only a few instances where I could defend my actions by citing the actual rule.
So I decided that it was time to brush up on my own understanding of punctuation and do a bit of sleuthing into the rhyme and reason of this illusive system of dots, dashes and other symbolic marks.
Top Punctuation Crimes
Copyblogger have listed their Top 6 Punctuation Mistakes, here. Although some of them I feel can be waived in more informal writing scenarios such as personal blogs, it can be a slippery slope, and the only brakes to stop us all from skidding helplessly into a tangle of spliced commas and orphaned periods is knowing the rules in order to break them deliberately.
What a load of tosh! I hear some of you traditionalists cry. Yet even the New York Times journalists make up words from time to time, but the difference between them and my assistant who insists on writing pacifically instead of specifically, is that theirs is a choice to creatively bend the rules to suit their work, while my poor assistant is simply in need of some further education. Some punctuation, to a certain degree, can be looked at in the same way, especially in the ever evolving world of online media.
He...talked...so...slowly. Is hardly an example of accurate punctuation, but it adds an extra sense of deliberation to the sentiment.
Some rules, however, should never be broken, and you should make sure you have a good grasp of (at least) these three:
- When to use apostrophes for plurals and contractions.
- How to split a sentence using commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and parenthesis.
- When to use quotation marks.
Great Learning Resources
Without a doubt, the best book relating to this topic has to be Eats, Shoots and Leaves which handles the somewhat dry issue with vast helpings of humor and teaches through examples that let you forget that you are learning. Examples which are much more memorable than some abstract rule learned by rote.
A more conventional book is the AP Stylebook, which is a great general tool for writers.
Think you know it all? Test yourself and see just how good (or bad) your punctuation skills are. The examples also give clear explanations, helping you to see the rules at work in context.
A final note: Am I 100% sure that the punctuation in this post is correct? Nope. Which is why I am off to take my own advice and study up!