Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Common Writing Mistakes: Punctuation

I'm constantly referring new writers to punctuation and grammar handbooks. Even the older, more experienced writers need a reminder every now and again. Here are just a handful of the mistakes I see regularly as an editor:

The Comma Splice
This is where a comma is used to splice together two sentences, where an em-dash, colon or semi-colon would be more appropriate (or where a new sentence should be used altogether). For example:

He walked to the door, it was open.

You could fix this several ways:

He walked to the door--it was open.
He walked to the door. It was open.
He walked to the door; it was open.
He walked to the door and it was open.

You could maybe even get away with:

He walked to the door: it was open.

Apostrophising Plurals
This is a rookie mistake. That is, using apostrophes incorrectly.

The following is correct:

Rose's flat.
She is visiting in three weeks' time.
Nicholas' bedroom is rather spacious.

The following is incorrect:

Rose's are red.
She is visiting in three week's time.
Stick's and stone's may break my bone's but bad punctuation will kill you.

Scare Quotes
This refers to the overuse of quotation marks to distance yourself from a word or idea--perhaps to seem ironic. In small doses, it's not so bad. But when used all over the place, it looks like you're above committing to the use of a word or idea, but still not clever enough to think of an alternative.

For instance:

He is a 'gay' man.
Christmas is 'nice'.
'Paper' on special offer today.

Why are you so scared to use those words you're putting in scare quotes, guys?

The best practice is to use quotation marks only for direct quotations, including direct speech, and when you're referring to a specific word or name.

For instance:

She said she was 'as hungry as a hungry, hungry hippo'.
'I'm as hungry as a hungry, hungry hippo,' she said.
The word 'punctuation' instils fear and dread in editors and writers across the world.

Misuse of Colons and Semi-Colons
This ties in with the comma splice, but goes further than that.

Colons lead into a clause. For instance: by explaining, clarifying, or opening up a sentence.

Colons are great for lists. Colons are great for leading us into something.

For instance:

She wanted: spoons, knives and forks.
Here is the problem: a colon is very different to a semi-colon.

Semi-colons, however, suggest a slight disconnect between two parts of a sentence. In most cases, if the second part of the sentence (after the punctuation mark) could be a separate sentence, you should probably use a semi-colon (or just make it a separate sentence).

Writing is great; bad punctuation sucks.

See what I did there? The use of the semi-colon pulls the two thoughts together. It also places them in contrast or suggests a slight disconnect between thoughts.

For instance:

She was hungry; she hadn't eaten in ages.
He didn't go to work that day; his head hurt too much.

In most circumstances these two thoughts could be split into two sentences:

She was hungry. She hadn't eaten in ages.
He didn't go to work that day. His head hurt too much.

The other use of semi-colons is what Lynne Trusse refers to as 'rounding up the rampant comma'. That means, when listing or when writing sentences with lots of subclauses, it tells you which part of the sentence belong together.

For instance:

She went out to buy: toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash from the chemist; cucumbers, sprouts and butternut squash at the supermarket; and denim jeans, a silk shirt and leather boots from H&M.

You could even write:

She went out to buy: toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash; cucumbers, sprouts and butternut squash; denim jeans, a silk shirt and leather boots.

Imagine that sentence without semi-colons. Actually, don't. Just see it below in all its horrific clumsiness:

She went out to buy: toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash from the chemist, cucumbers, sprouts and butternut squash at the supermarket, and denim jeans, a silk shirt and leather boots from H&M.

Or:

She went out to buy: toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash, cucumbers, sprouts and butternut squash, denim jeans, a silk shirt and leather boots.

Hanging Commas
There's a common use for commas as a kind of parenthesis in sentences. Here, for example, I've added the words 'for example' between commas. It serves the purpose of offering up additional information, or making a brief aside, without the same break in the sentence presented by an em-dash (and, to a greater extent, brackets). It's mainly about flow and rhythm. The pauses for each are different. Commas have the shortest pause, suggesting a kind of clarifying clause within a sentence. Em-dashes have a longer pause still, suggesting a break in concentration, an interruption or a change in direction during a sentence; and in the case of poetry and particularly dramatic scenes--of heralding a dramatic stop! Brackets, which have the longest pause of all, most closely resemble asides (think back to your school play days, and the actors turning to speak to the audience to add comment on the action of the play).

But what occasionally happens is this: writers put in the first comma, to suggest parenthesis, and then don't follow it with the closing bracket.

For instance, using the sentence above:

Writers put in the first comma, to suggest parenthesis and then don't follow it with the closing bracket.

This is lazy and leaves the sentence hanging. Similarly:

When using commas, that most popular of punctuation marks please do it properly.
When using commas that most popular of punctuation marks, please do it properly.

The above should be:

When using commas, that most popular of punctuation marks, please do it properly.

Commas, of course, are also used to add in pauses, which is where the confusion often arises. I'm not too keen on adding in commas willy-nilly just to make the reader pause, but others disagree. Writers such as Jeanette Winterson seem to go through their manuscripts, removing every comma they can get away with, till they have incredibly sparse and muscular prose. It works, but it's very difficult to ensure maximum ease of reading doing this. The opposite is the Charles Dickens school of thought, which peppers sentences with commas like confetti. It gives the writing a certain rhythm, for sure, although at times it does slow down the reading process if, like me, you pause in your head every time you see a comma. It's also acceptable to use commas after words and phrases such as:

However,
Nevertheless,
In retrospect,
Sir, / Madam, / Mum,

But if you go overboard, your page starts looking like an explosion in an iron filings factory.

Finally: if you are using commas for parenthesis, the sentence must make sense on its own if you remove the parenthetical clause. There are several examples above where removing clauses nested between commas wouldn't hamper the overall flow of the sentence (even if the reader would get less information as a result).

Do you have any punctuation pet peeves?


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