The Top Rules of Punctuation That People Still Get Wrong

Punctuation rules

They are but dots and dashes on a page, and they make no sound (unless you’re Victor Borge), and yet without them nothing we say would ever make sense.

Today, we’re marvelling at the simple punctuation marks that make up the English language.  Of course, I say ‘simple’, when these tiny little specks have been the cause of debate amongst scholars for centuries.  Do not fear, however, I’m not about to launch into a lengthy and onerous discussion around the importance of the Oxford comma; instead, we’re going to take a look at some of the most common punctuation mistakes we’re all still managing to make. 

To apostrophe, or not to apostrophe, that is the question.

Let’s start with the big, the bad, the apostrophe.  This flying comma actually works double-time performing two roles. 

Most people are fairly comfortable with their role regarding contractions, although make sure you’re placing the apostrophe where the missing letter goes and not where the space between words goes.

For example:

won’t (not wo’nt) = would not

isn’t (not is’nt) = is not

If only the next part was as simple!  Where apostrophes become problematic is when they start getting possessive, and, as with anything in life this complicated, I find adding a rabbit around about now always helps. 

So, we have one rabbit, and that rabbit has a carrot, therefore it is the rabbit’s carrot.

However, then we add another rabbit (because the world always needs more rabbits).  The rabbits are also communist so they now both own the carrot, therefore it is the rabbits’ carrot

In this case, the plural of rabbit ends in an s so we don’t need to add another s onto the end. Instead, we just place the apostrophe after the one that’s already there.

Simple!  Okay, now we’re going to be polite and address these rabbits by their first names, which happen to be James and Ulysses – you know, your typical rabbit names.  Coincidentally, our rabbits have also given up on communism and now live in a capitalist society, each owning their own carrot.

Now, James has a carrot and it is James’s carrot.  However, Ulysses also has a carrot and that is Ulysses’ carrot.

I can hear you beginning to panic from here, but don’t, it’s actually fairly easy to understand. You see, when you talk about the carrot James owns out loud, you pronounce it with that added ‘s, but when you talk about the carrot Ulysses owns, you don’t do that.

Yes, that’s really how it works.  Who said this was complicated, huh?

The Serial Comma

*deep breath* My name is Lydia, and I am a serial comma-holic.  I won’t deny it any longer, the simple fact is I like a good comma and I am not alone.  In fact, people like myself, those of us who have a habit of overusing commas to emphasise every, single, dramatic pause, have even given it its own special name, the Shatner Comma, named after James T. Kirk himself, Chris Pine William Shatner, who was famous for making frequent and seemingly random pauses in the middle of sentence.  Coincidentally, he is not the only actor to have coined his own comma; Christopher Walken also has that honour.

Not a comma, but not yet a full stop.

Here at Take Note, we’re not a big fan of the semicolon and prefer to avoid using them, perhaps because if we did we would spend all day debating just how to correctly do so!  In essence, they are a kind of halfway house between a comma and a full stop, for those times when you want to have a break but perhaps not one that completely ends the sentence.  Essentially, they’re used when you have two sentences that are somewhat linked but which you can’t bear to tear apart, like Romeo and Juliet, Ross and Rachel, or Ant and Dec. They’re also nothing like colons; whoever named them clearly understood their usage about as well as the rest of us!

Don’t stop me now, I’m having such a good time, I’m using a colon.

The colon is the triple-threat of the punctuation world, performing three different roles all with the same aim: to keep sentences moving forward.  They’re most commonly used to signify the start of a list, but can also be used as a lead in to a quotation, or to signify that what comes before it will be explained by what comes after it, sort of like how the TV show Lost concluded with a clear explanation for what we had been watching for six seasons…oh, wait….

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