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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Back to Basics

April 24, 2013

Most writers write without giving much thought to basics. I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I edit and in the assignments my college students turn in–knowledge of basic writing rules is lacking.

Here’s a refresher to check your own writing.

  • A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought. It requires both a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun (person, place, or thing) and a verb shows what the subject is or does.
  • An incomplete sentence may contain a subject and a verb, but it is called a sentence fragment because it does not express a complete thought.
  • A run-on sentence is created when two or more complete thoughts are joined without punctuation. If you join the thoughts without a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a semi-colon. If you join them with a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a comma.
  • Words that modify a noun or pronoun must appear in close proximity to the noun or pronoun being modified.
  • Dangling modifiers confuse the reader. Example: Walking down the pathway, the agate caught his eye. This says the agate is doing walking. Corrected example: Walking down the pathway, he noticed the agate.
  • Misplaced modifiers obscure the modifier meaning from the reader. Example: She noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen while conducting a safety inspection after hours. You can make the meaning of what she is doing more clear by rewriting the sentence this way:  While conducting a safety inspection after hours, she noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen.
  • Pronoun/antecedent agreement has surfaced as a huge problem since we’ve become politically correct. Back in beginning of time (kidding), the masculine pronoun was standard. Today, to avoid offending anyone, the generic plural (they, them, their) gets used. The problem arises because a singular antecedent (that’s the noun the pronoun refers to) needs a singular pronoun. Example of what’s incorrect: The neighbor won’t keep their yard mowed.  Neighbor is singular. Their is plural. Those two disagree and that’s bad writing. The fix is easy. Make neighbor plural (neighbors) or change their to the. Look at your own writing and see if you can improve it with just a little more effort in the pronoun/antecedent agreement area.
  • Subject/verb agreement is another area that needs attention. Agreement refers to number. A singular subject needs a singular verb. A plural subject needs a plural verb. Be sure you don’t confuse the subject with its modifier, which can cause you to use the wrong verb. Example: The closet containing all the art supplies is locked. Closet is the subject and singular. Supplies is plural but is a modifier, so doesn’t impact the verb. Thus, use the singular verb is with the singular subject. NOTE: Collective nouns (these refer to a group acting as one unit such as family, committee, team, etc.) use a singular verb.

Hope this primer helps you get back to basics.

Happy writing!


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!


Comma Sense

October 12, 2010

In the writing classes I teach at the college, I assign a comma exercise. I provide students fifteen sentences and instructions to add commas in the appropriate place, provide the reason for the comma, or mark the sentence with a C if it is correct (no commas needed).

The textbook I use contains a glossary with the most common reasons for commas, and I encourage students to use the appendix.

For most students, this is one of the hardest assignments of the semester. Sentences without punctuation are difficult to read. Knowing where to insert a comma is tough, but knowing why is even more difficult.

Here are some common reasons to use commas.

  • Insert comma between two independent clauses joined with a conjunction. Example: Louise thought John would be late, but John made it on time.
  • Use commas between three or more items in a series. Example: Larry, Moe, and Curly. NOTE: Some writing manuals require the comma before the conjunction in a series (Chicago Manual of Style and APA, for example), while others do not.
  • Use a comma after introductory phrases. Example: When the sun goes down, the night creatures come out.
  • Use a comma to set off contrasting words or phrases. Example: The more you edit, the better your writing.
  • Use commas for sentence interrupters. Example: She is, or thinks she is, a wonderful person.
  • Use commas to set off explanatory equivalents. Example: My mother, Jane, is a huge baseball fan.
  • Use a comma in a direct address. Example: Mary, can you babysit Saturday night?
  • Use commas with direct quotations. Example: Tom said, “I’m trying out for the lead in the class play.”
  • Use commas between modifiers. Example: the thorough, concise, readable manuscript.

Make sure you have a reason for inserting a comma (and the reason is not “That’s where I stop to take a breath.”). Your comma sense will show and you won’t go comma-crazy.

Happy writing!


Keep Colons in Your Punctuation Toolbox

September 24, 2010

Technology changes many things, including the formality of some of our written communication. Email is less formal than letters, for example. Many people don’t bother with a salutation (Dear Ms. Doe:) when writing email, but if they do, they keep it informal (Hi, Jane,). You’ll note in the formal salutation example that a colon is used while in the informal salutation a comma follows the greeting.

So, when do you use a colon?

  • Use a colon after a formal salutation (Dear Mr. Jones:).
  • Use a colon after an introduction before  a list , a summary, or a long quotation (A good writer does these things: reads a lot, considers the reader, free writes, revises). By the way, capitalize the first letter in what’s written after the colon only if what follows is a complete statement, a quotation, or contains more than one sentence. Otherwise, keep what follows the colon in lower case.
  • Use a colon to indicate dialogue (Mary: I’ve missed you. John: And I’ve missed you.).
  • Use a colon after the words the following or as follows–even if the words are implied rather than stated (She required the event include: entertainment, food, cash bar, and table decorations.).
  • Use a colon when stating ratios (The odds are 3:1.).
  • Use a colon to separate a title from a subtitle (Why I’m Blessed to Have You as a Friend: The little things that mean a lot).

One caution: Do not use a colon directly after a verb (Her three favorite authors are: Ernest Hemingway, J. K. Rowling, and Agatha Christie.).

Happy writing!


How Hard Can It Be to Use an Apostrophe?

September 10, 2010

Most of us probably give little thought to the appropriate use of an apostrophe. I say that because I see it used incorrectly in printed messages on the television screen, in periodicals, and even online. And this stuff is written by writing professionals!

People plug in an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong and they don’t insert one when it’s required.

Here’s a primer to help you with this misused punctuation.

  • Apostrophe shows possession. Example: writer’s block.
  • Apostrophe indicates omission of letters or numbers. Examples: ’90s (notice the apostrophe precedes 90 rather than comes after it because the numbers 1 and 9 are omitted) and they’re (this is the contraction for they are and omits the letter a).
  • Apostrophe forms some plurals. Example: She earned all A’s.

There are only three basic rules for using an apostrophe, so I ask, “How hard can it be to use an apostrophe?” Not so hard, really.