4 Handy Tips: A Punctuation Primer

4 Handy Tips: A Punctuation Primer

Editing / Grammar / Usage

We thought we would repost former TEC Editor Melissa’s blog this week to help us review four of the most common punctuation-related errors or inconsistencies that we see here at TEC.

 

Keeping these punctuation tips in mind will ensure that you apply them correctly and consistently in your writing.

 

 

 

THE SERIAL COMMA

 

Also called the “Oxford comma,” this is a comma that follows the second-last item in a list of three or more items (e.g., X, Y, and Z). Whether or not the serial comma is used is a matter of style. The rule is therefore simple: Be consistent!

 

Serial Comma:

January of 2016 saw the death of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey.

 

No Serial Comma:

January of 2016 saw the death of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey.

 

 

 

 

HYPHENS AND DASHES

 

Hyphens ( - ), en-dashes ( – ), and em-dashes (—) are not interchangeable.

 

An en-dash is generally the width of a typeset letter “n,” whereas an em-dash is generally the width of a typeset letter “m” – hence their names.

 

Hyphen

The hyphen is used to make compound words like pro-life, pre-sale, or re-emerge. It can also be used to join compound adjectives preceding a noun, such as coffee-drinking woman or hair-raising thriller.

 

En-Dash

The en-dash is used in number ranges and date ranges. For example, see pages 27–32; the play runs March 3–7, 2016; the years 1874–1902 were tumultuous.

 

Em-Dash

The em-dash is most often used as a stylistic tool to set apart or emphasize subordinate clauses within a sentence. This example shows the dash without spaces on either side: The leader of the party—although he was loved by all—decided to resign.

 

You can also set the dash with spaces on either side: This style — although popular — is not always used because it takes up extra space when typesetting the text.

 

 

 

 

COLONS AND SEMICOLONS

 

Colons

Colons ( : ) are used primarily to introduce a list, and are always preceded by a complete clause (i.e., something that could stand as an independent sentence).

 

Wrong:

My favourite bands are: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who

 

This is wrong because “My favourite bands are” is not a complete clause.

 

Right:

My favourite bands are all from the 60s: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who.

 

 

Semicolons

Semicolons ( ;) are usually used in two ways:

 

Use 1: to separate two complete but related clauses

Use 2: to separate items in a long or complex list following a colon

 

 

Use 1

Wrong:

My favourite Beatle is Paul; because he wrote so many lovely melodies.

 

This is wrong as “because he wrote so many lovely melodies” is not a complete clause.

 

Right:

My favourite Beatle is Paul; he wrote so many lovely melodies.

 

 

Use 2

Wrong:

My three favourite Beatles songs are “Here, There and Everywhere,” written by Paul; “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” written by George; and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” written by John.

 

The use of semicolons is wrong because there is no colon to introduce the list.

 

Right:

I have three favourite Beatles songs: “Here, There and Everywhere,” written by Paul; “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” written by George; and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” written by John.

 

 

 

POSSESSIVES

 

The possessive forms of a noun uses an apostrophe, with the exception of “its,” “yours,” and “whose.”

 

For possessives of nouns already ending in “s,” whether or not an apostrophe plus “s” is added is a matter of style: Charles’s car or Charles’ car.

 

Again, the rule is simple: Be consistent! 

 

 

Its and It’s

 

Wrong:

The cat is playing with it’s tail.

 

This is wrong because the possessive form of “it” does not take an apostrophe.

 

Right:

The cat is playing with its tail.

 

Right:

It’s fun to watch a cat play with its tail.

 

“It’s” with an apostrophe is used only to shorten “it is.”

 

*****

 

Yours

 

Wrong:

The world is your’s.

 

This is wrong because “your’s” is not a word. Don’t ever use it!

 

Right:

The world is yours.

 

*****

 

Whose and Who’s

 

Wrong:

Who’s book is this?

 

This is wrong because the possessive form of “who” is “whose.”

 

Who’s” with an apostrophe is used only to shorten “who is.”

 

Right:

Whose book is this?

 

Right:

Who’s reading this book?

 

 

 

For more grammar tips, check out TEC's "Editing: Grammar" blog collection!