Punctuation (and Other) Pitfalls, Part 2

punctuationA couple weeks ago I blogged about common punctuation pitfalls. Since I knew I hadn’t finished the list, I promised a “Part 2.” The only problem is, when I sat down to write it, I realized that a number of common questions and errors that popped into my head were not, strictly speaking, about punctuation.

But (for once) I’m not going to quibble about words. Let me just put a few more writing tips out there for you, and you can classify them any old way you want:

The Best Way to Emphasize a Word or Phrase?

Hint: here’s what not to do:

  • Don’t PUT IT IN ALL CAPS. All caps was bad form even before it became equated with shouting, in the digital age. It’s hard to read, for one thing. And it just looks cheap. It’s the print equivalent of an infomercial.
  • As a general rule, don’t put it in bold. Bold is sometimes used to good effect to make a sentence or even longer passage stand out. But using it to emphasize a single word or two generally doesn’t have the desired effect, and it can give your readers a headache.
  • “Don’t” put it in quotes. Despite being one of the most frequently pointed out writing errors, this remains in surprisingly wide use. The irony is that it has the opposite of its intended effect. When you write that something is a “bargain,” the implication is that it is not a bargain at all—maybe quite the opposite.

So what to do? Exactly what I’ve done in the opening sentence above: italics exist for almost one sole purpose: to convey emphasis. Use ‘em!

Speaking of Emphasis…

Beware the exclamation point! Exclamation points have their place! But too many exclamation points, especially in professional prose, make your entire message suspect and make you, the writer, look like a kook!

Unfortunately, the exclamation point seems to be having a renaissance in the digital age, as somehow in email and texting the lowly period has taken on an aura of dry sarcasm. I sometimes find myself writing “Thanks!” because “Thanks.” conveys an (generally entirely inaccurate) insincerity. I’m not sure yet what to do about this problem—let me know if you have any ideas. But in the meantime, just try, as much as possible, to clang the gate down on those runaway marks, before they overrun your credibility.

Return to the Planet of the Commas

I touched on commas in the last post. Truth be told, there are enough rules about commas to fill several entire posts—something I might just do someday. But for now, here’s one that bedevils many a communicator: how to use commas in a series.

A series, as you know, has commas between each entry (unless semicolons are in order). The question is, whether to put a comma before the final “and.” In other words, which one of the following is correct?

I went to the beach with my cat, my sandwich, and my mountain bike.


Three things are not allowed on the beach: pets, food and off-road vehicles.

Here’s the great news: both are technically correct. Version 1 includes what is known as the serial, or Oxford, comma, and many a style guide swears by it. However, the AP stylebook has long ruled it an abomination, banning serial commas except when needed for the sake of clarity. Since this is one of the most widely-used style guides in the U.S., Americans should probably assume it’s the one to follow. But your organizational communications department may have a stylebook of its own, in which case this is one thing you should definitely look up.

In related news, please take a moment to check out this important bit of news from the Onion.

Capitalizing on Job Titles

Here’s another one that’s not technically about punctuation, but is a close neighbor in matters of style. Many people overuse First Letter Caps, especially in job titles.

The deal is this: job titles are not capitalized unless they come right before the person’s name. All of the following are correct, at least until Gladys gets promoted:

Gladys Gooch is a senior vice president.

Gladys Gooch is senior vice president in charge of toothpaste sales.

Other senior vice presidents don’t cover the same territory as Ms. Gooch.

Senior Vice President Gladys Gooch says, “No one covers the territory like I do.”

Hyphen, En-Dash or Em-Dash?

I use dashes more than many people—I find them to be a most handy form of punctuation. To be precise, I should say I use “em-dashes.” That’s what that extended hyphen is called, to distinguish it from something most ordinary adults never bother with, and many may not even have heard of: the en-dash.

As far as I’m concerned, you can spend your whole life ignorant of the en-dash and be none the worse for it. But I must say it drives me a bit crazy when people conflate the dash with the hyphen.

So here’s what you need to know about all three:

A hyphen is that tiny little line we use to make compound words (or compound names) or break a word in two at the end of a line.

Work-life balance. Just-in-time inventory. Merry-go-round. Vita Sackville-West.

An en-dash is just slightly longer—supposedly the length of the letter “n.” Technically, it’s what goes in place of the word “to” in expressions like:

October 12–15, January–June or (something I just learned) New York–New Jersey border.

An em-dash—aka, a dash—is used, just as I have here and in a million other places, to make an aside (it can often be replaced by parentheses or commas), or in place of a colon. It can also be used for dramatic emphasis.

I’d give you an example of how one might use an em-dash, but—since I use them all the time—it will hardly be necessary for regular readers.

There were only three things I wanted with me on the beach—my bike, some food and my cat, Frederick.


Em-dashes, as I implied earlier, can be overused—something you’d be within your rights to criticize me for. And they are definitely to be reserved for informal writing.

By the way, you’ll find hyphens right on your keyboard (just to the right of zero). You can make en and em-dashes through clever use of the hyphen key: unless someone has been tinkering with autocorrect, MS Word turns a double hyphen with spaces immediately before and after it into an en-dash, and one without spaces before and after it into an em-dash.

Got some favorite Punctuation Pitfalls of your own? Let us know what they are with a comment below.

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  1. freya Hill says

    I KNEW this was right! Wooohoo!

    Don’t fall into the trap of using an apostrophe whenever you feel an “s” looks too naked. It’s absolutely ok—it’s correct—to write, “I was born in the 1880s” and “My family believed in keeping up with the Smiths.”

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