Punctuation Pitfalls, Part 1

RogerA confession:

I’ve been a professional writer for more years than I now care to admit, and I still have to pause sometimes and think through some basic rules of punctuation. Since I figure I can’t be alone in this, I decided to bring a few of them together in this post to help us both out.

It’s vs. Its

It’s one of the most basic rules of spelling and one of the most commonly noted mistakes. With a quick shout-out to Mrs. Dempsey, my third grade teacher, here’s the deal:

  • Use it’s when you mean it is: It’s not often that you meet a cat as lively as Frederick.
  • Use its when you are going for a possessive pronoun: Frederick knocked over a box and its contents spilled all over the floor.   

Speaking of apostrophes

Use them:

  • when making nouns possessive (except in the case of “it”):  The box’s contents included some of my most precious possessions, a number of which broke.
  • when making contractions: I can’t help being mad at Frederick, even though he didn’t know what he was doing.

That’s it.

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.”

One of the many challenges of the comma

Commas are pesky punctuation marks, frequently insinuating themselves into a sentence when they’re not necessary, or disappearing just when you need ‘em. Here’s one usage that constantly trips me up:

My cat, Frederick, likes to be read to. I often read Frederick my book, Ferdinand.

In this case, everything depends on how many cats I own—and how many books. If Frederick is an only-kitten and I have a one-book library, the sentences above are correct. But if I have several cats and more than one book, I’d have to write them this way:

My cat Frederick likes to be read to. I often read Frederick my book Ferdinand.

The New York Times recently ran a column that does a great job of explaining this rule. I’ve got it bookmarked and suggest you do the same.

Quotation marks—in or out?

It’s Mrs. Tharp, in seventh grade, to whom I owe this one: if a quotation mark falls at the end of the sentence, it always goes after the period. (Or question mark. Or exclamation point.) Always. And, by the way, it also always goes after a comma:

My cat is named “Frederick.”

Didn’t you say Frederick was “a handful?”

“Get that stupid cat off the table,” Mom muttered.

This is counterintuitive in many cases. And in fact, the British don’t do it this way. But in American English, you’ve just got to live with it. Sorry.

Parentheses, on the other hand…

…sometimes go before the period, question mark, or exclamation point, and sometimes go after. This one’s pretty simple:

  • If the phrase in parentheses is part of a larger sentence, the period goes outside the final parenthesis (like this).
  • (But if the phrase in parentheses is a complete, freestanding sentence, like this, the period goes inside the final parenthesis.)

What the heck is a semicolon?

I know I shouldn’t play favorites, but I admit to having a bit of a crush on the semicolon. Semicolons have two elegant uses:

  • Use them to separate two sentences that are so interrelated you just hate to let a period come between them; one common mistake is to use a comma in such a case, but that’s the making of a run-on sentence and it’s plain wrong! Simple rule—if you could properly separate two statements with a period, then you can’t use a comma—but you can use a semicolon.
  • Use them when you’re writing a series in which commas could lead to confusion: There are three things I care about more than life, itself: my cat Frederick, who likes to jump on the table; my only book, Ferdinand; and semicolons.

That’s it. I know they’re really cute, and you’re probably tempted to thrown them into your sentences every chance you get, but, sadly, the only other legitimate use I can think of for a semicolon is to make a winking emoticon.

Writing this, I realize punctuation is that proverbial can of worms; I can think of dozens more ways to get tripped up by it. Guess that can mean only one thing: watch for Punctuation Pitfalls, Part 2!

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  1. Sarah beth miller says

    I’m with you on the semicolon crush. I love them almost as much as exclamation points!!!

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