Common Punctuation Mistakes: Learning the Rules of Grammar
Proper punctuation can go a long way. It will help you improve your essay writing and editing. To make sure your message is rendered correctly, it is recommended to avoid punctuation errors. In case the error happens to be completely unintentional, you will know how to fix it without ruining the structure of your text. We have gathered common punctuation mistakes writers may come across while reading academic texts.
Absence of commas
If there are no commas in a sentence, they become run-on text paragraphs. If you have a problem defining the place of a comma in a sentence, it is advised to read the sentence aloud. Please take careful notes of any pauses that occur in your speech. Commas are inserted to separate clauses and divide specific phrases. This is a common example of comma absence in a sentence:
❌ I went to the hair salon yesterday but they were so overbooked that I could not make an appointment.
There is no comma before “but” and the sentence is read incorrect since there are no natural pauses. In this case, “but” acts as a conjunction that connects two independent clauses. The correct version of the sentence would be:
✔️ I went to the hair salon yesterday, but they were so overbooked that I could not make an appointment.
Avoiding commas splice
Although there is no established rule as to the perfect number of commas in a sentence, the overuse of commas can create a comma splice. This means that the word flow is interrupted by an excessive amount of punctuation marks in one sentence. In this case, it is better to split the sentence into several smaller ones. Below, you will find a classic example of comma overuse:
❌ I was at the supermarket yesterday, but there were too many people there, so I went home, but before that, I popped into the bakery, then I ran into an old friend of mine, so it was an insane day.
The correct version of the sentence would be the following:
✔️ I was at the supermarket yesterday, but there were too many people there. So I went home. But before that, I popped into the bakery and ran into an old friend of mine. So it was an insane day.
In the example above, we have removed the comma splice. Instead of joining two independent clauses without a conjunction, we have divided the sentence into several smaller ones.
Commas in quotation marks
The use of commas in quotation marks is a part of a dialogue punctuation guidebook. Any punctuation mark that is enclosed in the dialogue remains inside the closing quote. A primary example of this would be:
✔️ “I would like to buy lemons,” he exclaimed, “but there are none left!”
In the sentence above, quotation marks are placed after the punctuation marks and commas. If the dialogue has more than one line and you need variations on style, it is recommended to check a manual on the use of commas in direct and indirect speech.
The abundance of exclamation points in a sentence can cause unnecessary cluttering and devaluation of context. It mainly occurs in product placement speeches and blogs, aimed at promoting an item. Too many exclamation points overwhelm the readers and give an impression of shouting at the audience:
❌ This is the best dishwasher of the year! It is magical! It really works! Get one and recommend it to friends!
In the example, provided above, too many exclamation points create unneeded tension at the end of the sentence. Unless it is an informal message to a group chat or a forum, using excessive exclamation marks should only be reserved for valuable points. According to the researchers, one exclamation mark in a sentence is enough to get your message across.
✔️ This is the best dishwasher of the year. It works like magic, and you can buy one today. Please recommend it to friends!
In this case, an exclamation point is used at the end of the sentence to leave the audience on a positive note. It does not overburden the reader and renders the message.
Possessive apostrophes are used to indicate that something belongs to the subject or is related to the subject. A subject in a sentence can represent both the person and the object. However, plural nouns have to be used without an apostrophe:
❌ Their parent’s are coming over to discuss the future plans and go shopping.
The sentence above is incorrect. “Their” is related to people and not objects, therefore the correct version would be:
✔️ Their parents are coming over to discuss the future plans and go shopping.
Another correct use of an apostrophe would be the following:
✔️ Her boyfriend’s cousin is going to show them the car he bought yesterday.
In this case, the use of an apostrophe is justified. Grammatically speaking, the boyfriend’s cousin “belongs” to the family, so the relation is indicated. Before you put the comma in a sentence, think about whether the noun is singular or plural or means possession.
It’s and Its
The punctuation of it’s and its is often interpreted as a typo. The difference in meaning can cause confusion and mislead the writers. It’s stands for it is or it has, where the apostrophe is a contraction and does not indicate a possessive case. Its, on the other hand, designates possessiveness and is used without the apostrophe. Below are the examples of it’s and its in a sentence:
- It’s so good that you could make it to the party – we’ve been waiting for you all day!
- The car needs its engine repaired, and we are going to fix it soon.
In the first sentence, you can substitute it’s for it is, which is why an apostrophe is needed. In the second case, its indicates a measure of possessiveness, and the apostrophe is not necessary.
The Oxford comma
The Oxford comma is defined as the comma that is placed before the final item in the list of general items. It is a standard type of comma in British grammar. However, there have been debates as to whether the Oxford comma is needed in a sentence with a number of similar items. In American grammar, it has become conventional to skip the Oxford commas. Below, you will notice how the absence of a comma affects the sentence:
❌ I love my brothers, Will Smith and Tom Cruise.
The sentence above suggests that the writer loves their brothers, who are Will Smith and Tom Cruise. Here is a similar sentence that uses the Oxford comma:
✔️ I love my brothers, Will Smith, and Tom Cruise.
In this case, the sentence becomes clear: the writer loves their brothers as well as Will Smith and Tom Cruise. Those who advise against the idea of Oxford commas suggest that you can rewrite the sentence to fix the inconsistency. For example:
✔️ I love Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and my brothers.
Here are the examples of the sentences where both grammatical versions are correct:
- ✔️ I would like to inform you that we have ordered pizza, burgers, and fries.
- ✔️ I would like to inform you that we have ordered pizza, burgers and fries.
Hyphens and dashes
A hyphen is a small line, mainly used to combine two words in a single idea. Hyphens also combine words to form an adjective. A dash is a long line that has spaces. Dashes indicate the change in one’s pattern of speech or jumping to another train of thought. Here are the examples of using a dash and a hyphen in a sentence:
- ✔️ The campaign delegates started the discussion about the high-rated targets.
- ✔️ I love having a glass of strawberry milk in the morning – it makes me feel energized.
In the first sentence, “high-rated” is an adjective. It combines two words and is used with a hyphen. The second example signifies the movement from one idea to the next, and the dash is used. Dashes are also placed in a sentence to show the range of numbers or dates:
✔️ 10th – 12th February
Semicolons and colons
A colon is used for a list of items that need to be numbered or identified. Semicolons are used to separate two similar, but not identical thoughts. You can also divide the sentence into two separate sentences to avoid using too many semicolons.
- ❌ There were many goods on the shelves; jams, spreads, and marmalades.
- ✔️ There were many goods on the shelves: jams, spreads, and marmalades.
In the first example, the misuse of a colon is evident because of the list that follows the punctuation mark. In the second sentence, a colon is properly used for listing the products, placed on the shelves.
Here is another example of a correct semicolon use:
✔️ Today is the first day of my long-awaited vacation; I need to get away from it all.
Question marks are only used after the direct questions. The common mistake here would be using a quotation mark with an indirect question. Direct questions are the ones that state our purpose clearly:
✔️ Will you go to the shopping center?
An indirect question is more formal and polite. It includes words like “would”, “could,” or “may”:
✔️ Could you please go to the shopping center with me?
Incorrect use of a quotation mark would be putting it after the indirect question:
❌ I wonder if you could help me with the presentation, Miss Lila?
A formal, polite request should be punctuated with a period at the end of the sentence:
✔️ I wonder if you could help me with the presentation, Miss Lila.
In British grammar, there are statements that originally come in the form of a question. These statements are called rhetorical. They are said for effect and do not require an explanation or a direct answer. Some of the rhetorical questions in a sentence do not need a question mark:
- Why don’t you stop this nonsense.
- Would you two just give him some rest.
- What I wouldn’t do for the sake of this country!
The examples above represent situations that do not need a direct answer. In this case, no quotation mark is necessary to emphasize their meaning. Knowing this, you will achieve clarity in your writing. Being aware of the common punctuation mistakes also helps pinpoint minor details in your academic essays and creative tasks.
Common punctuation mistakes to avoid:
- Not using enough commas in a sentence
- Using too many commas in a sentence
- Incorrect placement of commas in quotation marks
- Overwhelming number of exclamation points
- The presence of extraneous apostrophes
- Incorrect use of it’s and its
- Ignoring the Oxford comma in a sentence
- The incorrect use of hyphens and dashes
- The incorrect use of semicolons and colons
- Inappropriate use of question marks