If you have trouble remembering punctuation rules, you’re not alone. For starters, the rules for punctuation in American English are so numerous, they can be hard to keep straight. To complicate things, many variations exist based on style, such as AP vs Chicago Manual of Style—or is that AP vs. Chicago Manual of Style??? Even texting has developed its own punctuation “rules” and style !!! And if you speak other languages besides American English, you’ve learned forms of punctuation that may not apply, or even exist, in U.S. English. Spanish speakers, for instance, use the upside down question mark (¿) at the start of a question. (My. Favorite. Punctuation. Mark… Ever.)
With all these different punctuation do’s and don’ts, it might be #!?#* hard to remember that the main point (¡pardon the pun!) of punctuation is to make your writing clear to the reader. In formal communications, at least, this is essential. One general mistake that abounds is the use of punctuation that isn’t needed. Take the apostrophe, for example, which trips up both native English speakers and non-native speakers. The most prevalent error I find is the use of an apostrophe in the possessive form of “it.” The correct form is “its,” sans apostrophe. When you write “it’s,” it can mean only one thing: an abbreviated form of “it is.” Period.
Another mistake I see is unnecessary apostrophes in plurals. I come across it a lot, especially at the end of words that end in the letter “y.” Why this happens, I don’t know.
In today’s world of fast-paced and instant communication, however, the biggest problem isn’t the wrong use of punctuation, but the simple lack of it. Missing punctuation forces the reader to do more work to try to understand what you wrote. Take the following example: “Let’s eat kids!” The writer probably meant to call the kiddies to dinner, but instead endorsed cannibalism. Yep, that’s the difference a missing comma can make.
In addition to the comma, another punctuation mark that is grossly underutilized is the hyphen, especially when it should be used to join separate words that form a single idea, like “five-year-olds.” While it’s true that, in general, the hyphen is on the decline in English, it ain’t dead yet, so use it if it helps add clarity.
If you make some of these mistakes—or any other punctuation errors—and would like a refresher course on U.S. punctuation rules, then I invite you to join my Advanced English Workshop on June 27, 2015, at the Encinitas Community Center. The 3-hour workshop will devote at least 45 minutes to punctuation, and will also look at common mistakes people make in other areas, such as grammar and spelling. It’s free for ATISDA members and $25 for non-members. (!)