Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Five Punctuation Tips for Writers

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Every year I edit many manuscripts and through this work I have found that many writers make some pretty simple punctuation errors. Plus, many are inconsistent in how they use punctuation. Here are five punctuation tips that will improve your writing.

1. Be consistent with commas. Whether you use the Oxford comma or the AP comma, be consistent. While most style guides now recommend the Oxford comma, many writers use Oxford and AP inconsistently. For example, it is not uncommon to see the two comma structures below in the same manuscript:

  • The three types of rocks are igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.
  • The three pillars of sustainability are environment, society and economics.

While either one could be correct, both together are not.

2. Avoid single quotation marks to set aside text. Typically the single quotation mark is not used in formal writing. Many writers like to emphasize text using single quotation marks in a sentence such as in the examples below.

  • While many find sustainability to be difficult to define, 'planners' embrace the concept.
  • The authors of the book use the concept of 'sustainability' to discuss 'climate change' as a concept.

In the first sentence, the term planners does not need emphasis since planners is a widely defined term and there is no need for emphasis. In the second sentence, one could make a case for emphasizing sustainability. Editors will often put such emphasized words in italics or double quotation marks. As in the first sentence, climate change is widely recognized and doesn't need emphasis. Plus, many writers overuse emphasis in their writing. Such overuse doesn't read well. The writing comes off as bumpy and snarky. A good rule of thumb is just to avoid single quotation marks overall. For whatever reason, the use of the single quotation marks has blossomed in some quarters of academia in recent years. I find that development unfortunate.

3. Accurate punctuation of the em dash. The em dash--the dash that is separating this phrase from the rest of the sentence--is often inappropriately punctuated. The em dash is a great tool in writing--it can separate a strong phrase from another in a sentence. It is often used appropriate in place of commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons. However, many writers do not know how to punctuate the em dash. To use it, just type two dashes where you want to use it without any spacing. Writers sometimes use lots of spaces when none are needed or use many dashes where just two are needed.


  • The United Nations--with the publication of The Brundtland Report--is responsible for kicking off the modern sustainability movement.


  • The United Nations -- with the publication of The Brundtland Report -- is responsible for kicking off the modern sustainability movement. (Spaces before and after em dash.)
  • The United Nations---with the publication of The Brundtland Report---is responsible for kicking off the modern sustainability movement. (More than two dashes.)
  • The United Nations--- with the publication of The Brundtland Report-- is responsible for kicking off the modern sustainability movement. (Inconsistent number of dashes and spacing.)

4. Spacing after periods. It's an age thing. People my age and older put two spaces after periods. Younger people put in one period. Most style guides now call for one space after periods. If you still use two spaces, train yourself to put in one space and save yourself and your editor a nightmare of spacing edits.

5.  Misuse of ellipses. The ellipse is a series of three dots used to indicate that something is missing. In formal writing, it is most often used in quotations to denote that some text in a quotation is missing, but is not needed in the text. Here is an example of how an ellipse is typically used:

  • Robert Brinkmann, in Introduction to Sustainability, said, "Sustainability . . . is a field that is growing in importance in the United States."

Note that there are only three dots and that each dot in the above is separated from the text and from each other by a space. Style guides vary from each other in the spacing requirements. Some call for a space between the dots and words but no spaces between the dots. Regardless, consistency is key. Below are incorrect examples of the ellipse:

  • Robert Brinkmann, in Introduction to Sustainability, said, "Sustainability . . . . is a field that is growing in importance in the United States." (Too many dots.)
  • Robert Brinkmann, in Introduction to Sustainability, said, "Sustainability a field that is growing in importance in the United States." (Inconsistent spacing.)

Overall, I find that these are the most vexing punctuation problems that I run into when I edit. I hope that this review will be of use to some of you. I am a very fast writer and mistakes always creep into my work. I have found that the best key to avoiding error is consistency.

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