Punctuation causes most writers even more anxiety than grammar. But it doesn’t need to be daunting; after all, punctuation is just a system of printers’ marks intended to bring clarity to the written word.
Imagine a paragraph as a musical score with punctuation marks as the rests that tell us when, and how long, to pause. Think of the comma as an eighth rest, the colon as a quarter rest, the semi-colon a half rest, and the period a whole rest.
Once you’ve got that down, try to avoid my punctuation pet peeves:
The period (.) All sentences end with a period, but sentences need both a subject and a verb. Without them, all you’ve got is a fragment.
Pet peeve #1: Using a period when you don’t have a sentence. Unless you are using a sentence fragment for stylistic reasons, don’t put a period after a group of words that is just a phrase. Example: A bad thing.
The semicolon (;) The semicolon has two major roles. First, it joins two complete sentences (or “independent clauses”) that the writer wants to link. Second, it acts as a supercomma in a complicated list whose elements have internal commas.
Pet peeve #2: Using a comma where a semicolon is required. Example: He intended to propose, she intended to ditch him at the next turn.
Pet peeve #3: Mixing commas and semicolons willy-nilly in a list. Example: Last year I traveled to Waialua, Hawaii, the highest mountain in the world, and Sierraville, California.The colon (:)-A colon, usually preceded by a complete sentence, introduces a second sentence or phrase-or a list or quote-that illustrates, restates, elaborates, or makes sense of the first sentence.
Pet peeve #4: Using a colon when the verb already does the introducing, making the colon redundant. Example: My favorite dances are: hula, the waltz, and the Cha Cha.
The comma (,) The comma collects groups of words into phrases, separates elements of a list, and places badly needed pauses between parts of sentences.
Pet peeve #5: Dropping commas after long introductory phrases. Example: In the case of my great aunt the family just decided she was too wacky to listen to.
Pet peeve #6: Dropping the comma between two clauses joined by coordinate conjunctions. Example: My grandmother remained faithful to her but my father laughed her off.
Pet peeve #7: Using a comma, rather than a semicolon, to splice together two independent clauses. Example: We all have “Aunt Flossie stories”, the one about lunch at the Waldorf is my favorite.
Pet peeve #8: Dropping the comma after a subordinate clause. Example: While the waiter stood stoically Aunt Flossie showed him how to make a proper chef’s salad.
Pet peeve #9: Dropping the second comma in an appositive phrase. Example: The waiter, a real professionalnever let his smile wilt.
Pet peeve #10: Dropping the second comma at the end of a “weak interruption.” Example: Secretly, of coursehe wasappalled.
Pet peeve #11: Dropping the second comma in a nonrestrictive clause. Example: My brother and I, who found Aunt Flossie entertainingnever forgot her performance.
Exclamation mark (!) An exclamation mark expresses surprise or excitement.
Pet peeve #12: Overly enthusiastic use. I get this! I really get this punctuation thing!
Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, offers this metaphor to keep your marks straight: “In the family of punctuation, where the [period] is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practices the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets overexcited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.”