National Punctuation Day is observed on September 24 each year, which just happens to be this writer's birthday. It's a matter of opinion whether I was born on the date fated to be chosen, or whether the date was chosen in honour of my birthdate. In any case, I believe that grammar and punctuation are vitally important to good communication, and a sign of respect both for your own ideas, and for your readers.

What is punctuation? It's all those marks on your keyboard that are not letters or numbers. Commas, periods, quotation marks, hyphens, colons, semicolons, parentheses, virgules, apostrophes: if you don't know what these words mean, or how the marks are used, today is the day to find out how.


Credit: Copyright 2014 by Cynthia K. Wunsch. Used by permission

There are several commonly misused punctuation marks, so I thought, in observance of National Punctuation Day, I would start with a real life example: A buyer was at an auction, and wanted to confirm a bid before committing to it. He telegraphed the person for whom he was buying the item, and received this response. "NO PRICE TOO HIGH." The buyer bought the item, only to have the owner fire him. Why? The owner had meant, "No. Price too high." This one punctuation mistake cost him thousands of dollars! Some of my other favourite examples are:

  • What's that in the road ahead? vs. What's that in the road, a head? and
  • What is this thing called love? vs. What is this thing called, love?

Apostrophes are perhaps the worst used punctuation mark. They prove troublesome for many people, and so they keep popping up where not wanted, and absent when you expect them. There is, however, an easy way to remember when they are not used: when you are writing a plural, you should never use an apostrophe. (A plural is usually made in English by adding an "s" onto the end of a word to mean more than one of something. This never uses an apostrophe.)

The other time apostrophes are never used is in possessive pronouns. Many writers use an apostrophe incorrectly in the word "its," forming "it's." It's means it is, or it has. How can you remember this? Most writers successfully avoid using an apostrophe in the word "his," so if you can replace "it's" with "his," and have the sentence still make sense, take out that apostrophe!


A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation
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Another commonly misused punctuation mark is the comma. The comma is most often misused in what is called a run-on sentence, that is, two complete sentences joined with a comma. An example of this is: "Your computer needs to be rebooted, turn your computer off for a minute and then turn it back on." If we look at this, we can see that "Your computer needs to be rebooted" is a complete sentence. "Turn your computer off for a minute and then turn it back on" is also a complete sentence. Therefore, you need a different punctuation mark than a comma for separating the two sentences. The easiest way to break them up is to use a period. However, you can also use a semicolon to separate the two sentences.

A virgule ("slash") is used most commonly to separate lines of poetry, that, for whatever reason, are written on a single line. "Roses are red/Violets are blue/Sugar is sweet/And so are you!" is an example of how poetry should be written on a single line. Song lyrics are treated in the exact same way as poetry.

What about quotation marks? The most common misuse of the quotation mark is to give emphasis to something. In fact, quotation marks should be used for only two purposes: to mark off something someone has said or written as being someone else's speech or writing; and to set off examples in text. To use quotation marks for emphasis is not only wrong, but can lead to some undesirable interpretations of what you have written. As we want our writing to be clear, quotation marks only confuse the issue. Rather than quotation marks, where possible, consider putting text in bold type. Or decide if the emphasis is really necessary--sometimes the emphasis can actually impair your meaning.

And if you use quotation marks for emphasis, you may find yourself in big trouble. In fact, what you think you are calling attention to is actually casting doubt on it. Just think about what thoughts would come to mind if you were to get a note asking you to drink some "special" milk! No matter what word you use quotation marks on for emphasis, you are telling people to think the opposite, so please, just do not use quotation marks for emphasis!

In the United States, commas and periods go inside quotation marks; question marks and exclamations marks go inside if they are part of the original quoted text, outside if they are not. "What are we having for dinner?" takes the question mark on the inside of the quotation mark. But if you were to write: Do you think that it was racist on the census form to put the word "Negro"? the question mark would go on the outside of the quotation mark, because the census form says "Negro," not "Negro?"

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If you've ever wondered about the "correct" names of all those punctuation marks, or where they come from, or who invented them, this is just the book for you!

If you have a long list, prepare people for the list by introducing it with a colon. "For this recipe, you will need: eggs, milk, flour and water." If the list items themselves are more complicated than a single word or two, use a semicolon to separate the items in the list. "For this recipe you will need: four eggs, beaten; one-half cup of flour, sifted; tw0-thirds cup of milk; and a quarter-cup of water." (No, I don't know what that will make. I just invented that for an example.)

And finally, hyphens. The most common use of a hyphen is to show that one adjective is describing another adjective. For example, a hyphen is used when writing out fractions followed by a noun: one-half cup; one-third measure; three-sevenths of the population. The first number of the fraction changes the meaning of the second number of the fraction. In the same way, writing "big nosed person" tells you that the person is big, and has a nose; writing "big-nosed person" tells you that the person has a nose, and the nose is big.

Now that you have a better understanding of punctuation, I hope you'll go out and celebrate National Punctuation Day, and have fun with people who still haven't quite caught on to using punctuation correctly! And perhaps I will have inspired you to investigate why grammar is important, too!

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
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You might have heard of this book; if not, you need to check it out! The author provides a humorous but insightful take on punctuation and its proper use, and you will end up learning how to punctuate properly even if you didn't intend to. And if you have heard of it, you were just waiting for it to show up here, weren't you?