Proofing for These Common Comma Errors

July 25, 2013

You’ve brainstormed your query, article, or chapter. You’ve written your first draft. You’ve re-read and tweaked your piece one more time. So, what’s left to do before deciding you’re ready to move on to something else? You’ve got to proofread your piece, looking for spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors.

Here’s a list of common comma errors to look for.

  • In a sentence containing two complete thoughts separated by a conjunction, you need a comma before the conjunction. Examples of conjunctions to alert you to add a comma are but, or, yet, so, for, and. Sentence example: She thought his ideas were good, but she didn’t want to let him know that just yet.
  • Insert a comma after an introductory phrase. Example: In a sentence containing an introductory phrase, you need a comma at the end of the phrase.
  • When you have a series of three or more items, place a comma before the and preceding the last item. NOTE: This is a requirement for books, but not for periodicals. Example: The school supply list included pencils, pens, markers, crayons, and notebooks.
  • When you have a parenthetical expression in a sentence, set off that extra, unneeded information with commas on both sides of the expression. Example: Jon Smith, the person who normally assists us, didn’t come to work today.
  • Place a comma between consecutive adjectives when you don’t use and between them. Example: Mary couldn’t stand George’s loud, boisterous speaking.
  • Insert a comma after the year when writing a full date. Example: They were married on August 13, 2009, in Vegas. NOTE: When you write only the month and year, omit the comma. Example: They were married August 2009 in  Vegas.

Although this list is not all-inclusive, it gives you a quick primer on common comma errors to look for when you proofread your final version of your work.

Happy writing!

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Editing is a Critical Part of the Writing Process

October 3, 2012

I attended two meetings and one seminar last week and one issue surfaced in each venue–today’s writing needs more editing. When pressed for more details, each person talked about the explosion of independent publishing created by technology and the deterioration of the quality of the end result. Most of the complaints centered around e-books, but independently published (aka self-published) print books were just as bad.

Here are some of the points raised in the discussions during last week’s meetings:

  • Simple punctuation errors such as where to place commas or periods with quotation marks (both go inside the quotation mark, by the way).
  • Simple punctuation errors such as whether or not to place a comma before the conjunction in a series (per the book industry standard, Chicago Manual of Style, a comma goes before the conjunction in a series).
  • Pronoun/antecedent disagreement (plural pronouns such as they or their with singular antecedents such as speaker). Example: When a speaker tells their audience a story, they should use more gestures. Edited version: Most speakers should use more gestures when telling stories to their audiences.
  • Overuse of trite expressions.
  • Overuse of favorite words or phrases.
  • Overuse of scare quotes. Scare quotes are the quotation marks put around words. These should be used judiciously and only when “scaring” a reader into seeing a word is used in unusual manner. Too many scare quotes become distracting.
  • Capitalization of job titles without a person’s name. Example: I couldn’t reach the Principal, so I called the Superintendent.
  • Using ellipsis to show a break or pause. The correct punctuation for that is a dash. Ellipsis shows omission, not pause. The one exception is that ellipsis is correctly used  in dialogue to show faltering speech.
  • Sometimes words are missing.

The take-away from the discussions is the writer’s credibility is compromised, if not dismissed, when he or she shows little regard for details before publishing.

One caution, however. Avoid asking people who love you (and everything you write) to help you with your editing. They simply won’t tell you where your writing lacks clarity or needs work, either because they don’t see it  themselves or they don’t want to risk hurting you.

Do yourself and your reader a favor and invest in hiring an editor before you independently publish your work. The perception of your credibility depends on it.

Does all of this mean your “baby” won’t have a birthmark? No. Writers are human. Editors are human. Humans make mistakes. It happens, even in the big publishing houses. All I’m suggesting is it’s worth doing a little extra editing for both you and your reader.

Happy writing!


Dashes–Do They Help or Hurt Your Writing?

October 28, 2010

One of the most perplexing punctuation marks for writers seems to be the dash. Because dashes are so powerful, many writers don’t use them at all.

The hierarchy (from least to most powerful) of punctuation is comma, parentheses, colon, dash.

Commas are commonly used and there are numerous reasons to use them (but that’s a different blog post).

Parentheses are stronger than commas when showing a reader something is unnecessary (parenthetical) to the writing, but helpful to create understanding. Commas are used for that purpose as well, but there are many other reasons to use commas.

Colons are used when the writer wants to  create anticipation. Example: (note the colon creates anticipation that I’ll give you an example).

Dashes are used to get the reader’s attention. They provide a sharper break in the sentence than commas do, and they offer a more dramatic alert that something’s being inserted in the sentence than parentheses do.

Here’s when dashes help your writing.

  • Use the dash for emphasis. Example: She had to make a decision regarding her career–and she made it this morning.
  • Use the dash to indicate an abrupt change. Example: When they went to the casino, he hated to see her lose–or win–since both kept her gambling.
  • Use the dash to summarize. Example: Every argument has two viewpoints–the other person’s and the correct one.
  • Use a pair of dashes instead of parentheses to enclose parenthetical information. Example: Her thoughts on dieting–if she thought about it at all–were few and far between.

To complicate matters more, there are two kinds of dashes–the em-dash and the en-dash.

The em-dash is so named because it takes up space equal to the letter m. It is the most commonly used dash and the default of most word processing programs.

The en-dash is so named because it takes up space equal to the letter n. It is used between inclusive numbers.

Do dashes help or hurt your writing? When used correctly, they definitely help. When overused, they hurt.

Happy writing!