September 24 is National Punctuation Day, and the entire month of September is Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month. Trilix encourages you to celebrate this significant intersection on the language calendar by avoiding these punctuation pitfalls and by showing a little love to the “wordie” in your life.
Punctuation is important. It removes ambiguity and provides clarity so readers can grasp what the writer intended. Punctuation errors can be expensive. For NASA, a missing hyphen thwarted Mariner 1’s launch to Venus, costing them a whopping $18.5 million in 1962 ($156 million in today’s dollars). And perhaps you’ve even heard that punctuation can save lives. Take the following classic example:
- Let’s eat Grandma!
- Let’s eat, Grandma!
One little comma is all that stands between a family dinner — and family for dinner. Chaos can ensue when punctuation is missing or applied incorrectly.
Here are the most problematic punctuation pitfalls and easy guidelines for avoiding them.
Apostrophes indicate the omission of letters or numbers:
Trey hasn’t danced since the ’80s.
- Note this apostrophe: ’80s. When you first type it in, MS Word turns it into a single opening quote: ‘80s.
- You‘d recognize that the apostrophe was upside-down and backward in the middle of a word, but when an apostrophe is at the beginning of a word, this error is missed by many!
- Here’s how to override Word’s “help” when you want an apostrophe at the beginning of a word: Press the apostrophe key twice (‘’), then go back and delete the first character.
Apostrophes indicate possession (if there are two or more students, agencies, Johnsons or Joneses, the apostrophe comes after the “s”):
|Single Possessive||Plural Possessive|
|One student’s hideout||The students’ hideout|
|One agency’s logo||The agencies’ logos|
|Bob Johnson’s house||The Johnsons’ house|
|Indiana Jones’ house||The Joneses’ house|
Apostrophes indicate plurals of single letters:
Trey got A’s and B’s in grammar.
Lex tried to mind his p’s and q’s when the VIPs were visiting.
Commas are needed in compound sentences:
Trey likes sushi, and Lex likes chicken and waffles. (With no comma, this would be a run-on sentence.)
Commas are needed to make essential versus nonessential information clear:
Trey’s girlfriend, Trixie, likes to eat at Blue Sushi.
- If Trey had only one girlfriend, her name would be nonessential information, and nonessential information is surrounded by commas.
- You can take nonessential information out of a sentence, and it will still make sense (Trey’s girlfriend likes to eat at Blue Sushi.)
- However, if Trey had several girlfriends, the girlfriend’s name would be essential information, and essential information is not surrounded by commas:
Trey’s girlfriend Lily prefers Tupelo Honey.
- Commas are needed between equal adjectives:
Lex is excited to open the bulky, heavy box.
How can you tell if they’re equal adjectives? Take the test!
- Can you flip-flop the adjectives? The bulky, heavy box and the heavy, bulky box both work.
- Can you join the adjectives with “and”? The box is bulky and heavy.
- Equal adjectives = YES! Comma = YES!
Lex found a black fur coat in the bulky, heavy box.
- Can you flip-flop the adjectives? The black fur coat works, but the fur black coat doesn’t.
- Can you join the adjectives with “and”? The coat is black and fur.
- Equal adjectives = NO! Comma = NO!
Quotation marks are needed in direct quotations:
“Are you done with that sushi?” Trey asked.
“I would not object,” Lex replied, “if you ate the rest.”
Trey said, “You’re the best!”
Quotation marks are needed for the following titles when using AP style, as AP style does not use italics:
The titles of books, movies, plays, poems, albums, songs, operas, radio and television programs, lectures, speeches and works of art. (Note: No quotation marks for newspaper and magazine titles.)
Special notes for single quotes.
- Use single quotes for a quotation within a quotation:
Trixie said, “I told Trey, ‘You better not take me to Tupelo Honey tonight!’”
- AP style calls for single quotes in headlines and subheads.
The cost of punctuation pitfalls.
Punctuation mistakes can cause readers to lose respect, writers to lose credibility, meaning to be lost and — in the case of NASA and marketers — money to be lost. Making matters worse, the internet 1.) loves to shame mistakes and 2.) makes it extremely difficult to delete a piece of content that has gone viral.
It’s best to simply avoid punctuation errors in the first place. Which brings us back to Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month. If you don’t have a formal content quality assurance process in place, seriously consider implementing one. Your writers and editors just might save you from a brand-busting punctuation pitfall.