5 frequently misused punctuation marks

Guess what. Problematic punctuation is ubiquitous. It’s also profoundly disturbing to a great many people. Here’s what you can do to help.

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I never knew bathroom fixtures and accessories could be so enthralling.

Yet there they were, breathlessly announcing their presence at the far end of aisle 26 in the big box hardware store:

Soap Dish!
Shower Caddy!
Toilet Paper Holder!

This was on the packaging. The guts, the passion, the unfettered revelry—these seemingly mundane items were just waiting to erupt in exultation.

Seriously (for now), an exclamation point on each of these? Hard to fathom. Now, the opposite might warrant such alarm—in one case, at least:

No toilet paper holder!

OK, OK, I’ll get to the instructive stuff soon. Sorry, but I was on a roll.

Punctuation has become a casualty of modern “writing.” Simply put, most people just guess at how to use most common punctuation marks and are completely at sea when it comes to ellipses and such. Even question marks crop up in weird places, and the poor apostrophe and comma get dropped into words and sentences like chocolate chips into cookie dough—and to far less gratifying effect.

A comprehensive tome on punctuation is ill advised in this space, so a compendium must suffice. Here are some commonly misused, abused, and/or neglected punctuation marks, along with remedies for their maltreatment.

The question mark

Example A: “Guess what I did this morning with a casaba melon?” In this case, the question mark should instead be a period. “Guess” in this case is an imperative, not an interrogative. You are directing someone to do something, to guess at your pre-noon melon-related activity. You might just as well be instructing someone, “Tune this xylophone.”

Example B is a similar misuse, “I wonder when Aloysius will return from the roller derby tournament?” Again, there should be a period, not a question mark. This time, however, it’s because the sentence is a simple declarative statement. “I” (subject) + “wonder” (verb) + “when Aloysius … tournament” (object). It’s the same basic declarative structure as, “I love rye toast,” or, “I love a wry toast.”

The ellipsis

There’s another mark that’s often misused … and that’s the ellipsis. And I just used it where a simple comma should go—or, for emphasis, an em dash.

In example B (in the section on question marks), I inserted an ellipsis (…) to indicate a gap, or missing words, in quoted text. That is its primary function, most often seen in newspaper or magazine articles. It replaces extraneous information without distorting the meaning of what was said.

“I’m in favor, once the necessary funding and permits have been secured, of course, of building a museum dedicated to Peloponnesian War artifacts, paraphernalia, and memorabilia.”

This can be correctly shortened to this:

“I’m in favor … of building a museum dedicated to Peloponnesian War artifacts, paraphernalia, and memorabilia.”

What’s not OK would be shortening this:

“I’m not in favor of building a museum dedicated to Peloponnesian War artifacts, paraphernalia, and memorabilia.”

To this:

“I’m … in favor of building a museum dedicated to Peloponnesian War artifacts, paraphernalia, and memorabilia.”

Altering the meaning by using an ellipsis is outright deception.

Another purpose the ellipsis serves is to serve as a cliffhanger, of sorts, or to lead the reader to complete your thought on his or her own, usually by leaving a common saying incomplete:

“After all, which came first, the chicken … ?”

“Neither a borrower … ”

The apostrophe

Do not use apostrophes to form plurals. Do use them in forming possessives (the captain’s quarters, for example), except in possessive pronouns (yours, its, ours, theirs, hers). They’re also used in contractions, aren’t they?

The comma

Commas serve so many functions that it’s hard to cover them in fewer than 1,600 words, but there is one confusion—a blend of misplacement and omission—that I’d like to address here.

“Fiona Magillicuddy offers advice for communicators on what to share, and perhaps more important, what not to share, on social media.”

One comma out of three is properly placed. This is how it should look:

“Fiona Magillicuddy offers advice for communicators on what to share and, perhaps more important, what not to share on social media.”

The first comma is unnecessary, because that’s not a compound sentence—i.e., a sentence with two independent clauses, such as this: “My flotilla sailed Tuesday, and I enjoy making quiche.” (Two standalone clauses warrant a comma before “and.” Go ahead; they deserve it.)

Confusion might arise due to the dual object of the preposition on: “what to share and … what not to share on social media.” Each is a phrase but not a clause. Compounding the confusion is “perhaps more important.” Egad, what should we do with that?

Well, we see, through the clever use of the ellipsis, that the phrase could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. It’s a nonessential modifier, so it should be set off with commas.

The exclamation point

OK, so we’re back where we started. Basically, don’t use an exclamation point unless you’re writing dialogue and you want the reader—or the actor playing dashing super sleuth Biff Bockingham—to feel the visceral power of: “Gimme a cream soda! And none of that diet stuff, either! I’m really miffed!”

Facebook is another good venue for the exclamation point—assuming you’re not posting something upon which Fiona Magillicuddy might frown. Yet even she could not temper her exuberance for the following:

“OMG! My yoga instructor got a tattoo of Calvin Coolidge!! In his left armpit!!!”

So, for such events the exclamation point is certainly warranted, but otherwise leave it out of your business writing, or people might think you run a bit, well, hyperbolic.

Unless, of course, you find a really incredible Bath Mat!

(If you have other suggestions, please offer them in the Comments section. Remember, though, that this is not a comprehensive guide to all things punctuation, so please refrain from starting with, “You forgot …”)

Follow @word_czar on Twitter, or email him at robr@ragan.com.


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