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6 Punctuation Gaffes You See Every Day

posted by Peter on November 6th, 2008

They’re everywhere. In newspapers, books, magazines, streetside menu boards, brochures, Web sites, instruction manuals, pamphlets, leaflets, psalms, fliers, ads, even business signs and logos. Small, almost unnoticeable punctuation mistakes. Usually the general public doesn’t notice them, but they’re there, and they’re cringing.

The biggest culprits: apostrophes and commas. These tiny marks, as insignificant as they are in the grand scheme of things, frequently end up as tiny slain pedestrians on the highway of the American English language. Sounds dramatic? Imagine how literature professors feel –- or professional copy editors.

Hopefully without being too lame, this article will gloss over the most common public occurrences of literary slaughter among punctuation, pointing out some interesting ways of remembering the rules. And in all fairness, if you notice any punctuation slaying within this article, feel free to smack me upside the head via the comment section.

Slaying #1: The ol’ comma left out of the compound sentence.

Example: Some of the links were broken so I hit the back button and left.

How to get it right: In a compound sentence, commas usually connect two independent clauses by means of a conjunction (such as “and,” “so” or “though”). The comma keeps the two clauses separated, so things make more sense. Like this:

Much of the Web’s content is marketing, so be wary of a site’s intent.

How to remember: Imagine the subject and predicate are a couple that doesn’t like other couples. If you keep them together in the same “room” (read: clause), and keep other subject-predicate couples in their own separate rooms, everyone will be happy. That means if you have a sentence with more than one subject-predicate couple, make sure there’s a comma between them or they’ll go crazy.

Slaying #2: The ol’ comma stuck between the noun and the verb.

Example: The senator, put his coat on and walked out the door.

How to get it right: If there is only one clause in the sentence, you usually don’t need a comma. You also don’t need to put one inside of an independent clause unless you’re adding a dependant clause. For the example above, you’d only use a comma if there were another independent clause, like this:

The senator put his coat on and walked out the door, and then he realized it was hot outside.

…Or a dependant clause, like this:

The senator, a coat aficionado, put his coat on and walked out the door.

How to remember: Imagine the subject-predicate couple is very lovey-dovey, and they want to be together more than anything. The only way a comma can come between them is if it brings an entire dependent clause with it. That way it won’t feel like the third wheel.

Slaying #3: The ol’ comma shoved between a title and its owner.

Example: Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, drank a lot.

How to get it right: If you’re introducing someone title-first, you don’t need a comma:

Prime Minister Winston Churchill drank a lot.

However, if you’re introducing the name and adding the title afterward, the title becomes a dependant clause, like this:

Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the UK, drank a lot.

How to remember: Imagine you’re writing about your buddy, Bob, who is really fat. You might call him “Fat Bob,” and you wouldn’t use a comma. Or if you were pointing him out to someone in a crowded room, you might call him “Bob, the fat guy,” and you would use one. This way, a title can almost act like a person’s nickname. All of this should probably stay behind Bob’s back, by the way.

Slaying #4: The ol’ apostrophe crammed into a plural noun.

Example: I took my three dog’s for a walk.

How to get it right: Apostrophes make something possessive, or they stand for missing letters, as in a contraction. The only time an apostrophe is used in a plural is for single lowercase letters:

His a’s always look like 2s.

That’s it. Even for numbers and capital letters, an apostrophe isn’t needed in a plural.

How to remember: Think of the A’s baseball team. They’re not called the “As,” and their rival is the Giants, not the “Giant’s.” You’ll have to ignore the fact that the A’s use a capital ‘A’ in their name, but this should still make things easier.

Slaying #5: The ol’ apostrophe stuck into a possessive pronoun.

Example: The gorilla thought the doll was it’s baby.

How to get it right: Pronouns (him, them, it) don’t need apostrophes to show possession. They stand unaided, like this:

No one could figure out whose shoe it was.

How to remember: A pronoun represents a person, the way a mannequin or a dummy does. A mannequin can’t have possessions, right? Neither can a pronoun, so you don’t need to indicate it in a sentence.

Slaying #6: The ol’ apostrophe on the wrong side of the year.

Example: It happened in the summer of 69’.

How to get it right: Apostrophes serve to take the place of missing letters, or in this case, numbers. What’s missing is the 19, so the apostrophe should go where it would go:

I crashed your ’58 Vette, Dad.

How to remember: The appalling notion of crashing a ’58 Vette should sear this one into your brain, but otherwise, just think about what the apostrophe is replacing.

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