Punctuation can seem mysterious but isn’t, really. All you need to do is apply a few fairly simple rules. That said, mastering punctuation does take attention, but the payoff is that your writing will sound polished, which is what you’d like, right?
Maeve Maddox (@MaeveMaddox) has posted “10 punctuation tips for every writer,” and, though I think it is probably targeted at people who don’t write for a living, even professionals can benefit from a review. Here’s a quick recap. Please consult her post for more detailed explanations and more examples:
- Follow introductory words, phrases, and clauses with a comma. Example: If you do the crime, you should do the time.
- Use commas to set off nonessential information. If the sentence stands without the information, then it’s nonessential. Example: The first woman in line, who wore a blue dress, engaged us in conversation.
- Don’t set essential information off with commas. Tip: The information serves as a necessary descriptor. Example: The man who wore the chicken costume danced for hours.
- Join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinate conjunction, such as and or but. Tip: Each independent clause can stand on its own. Example: He ran, but she ran faster.
- Do not join two independent clauses with a comma, as in “Thank you for your business, please come again.” (This comma splice is a real-world example from the sign on a convenience store I drive past on the way to the freeway.) Example: “Thank you for your business. Please come again.”
- Do not use a comma before a noun clause. Tip: The noun clause referred to is likely to be a direct object of the verb. Example: “Upon opening the oven door, she discovered that the mac and cheese was on the verge of burning.”
- Use a comma before a quotation. Hey, you should know this one! Example: Scarlett O’Hara said, “I’ll think of some way to get him back tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
- Follow a complete sentence that introduces a word, phrase, clause, list, or quotation with a colon. Example: He has three lethal food preferences: chicken nuggets, fries, and convenience-store nachos. Tip: If the sentence is not complete, leave the colon out.
- Use an end stop—a period or semicolon—at the end of an independent clause. Example: Visit us again soon. Don’t be a stranger. Tip: Using a comma to join those two ideas will not do and will, in fact, create a run-on sentence. (See #5.)
- “Multiple exclamation points don’t belong in mature writing.” My comment: How true. I remember my manager once telling me never to use an exclamation point in anything I wrote for him. Your writing should be strong enough to convey enthusiasm without exclamation points. Ms. Maddox notes, “On the rare occasions that an exclamation mark is wanted in formal writing, one is sufficient.”
So, there you have it. A quick review of ten important punctuation tips. Wield them expertly, and your writing, while perhaps not sparkling, will at least not elicit guffaws from those you’d prefer to impress.