- Edit for common punctuation errors
Writers do themselves a great favor by learning to understand punctuation conceptually, as follows:
A comma is a separator. Therefore, when you use one you should identify why the material is worthy of separation. Common reasons include that you used a transition word or phrase that creates a natural pause; you wrote a lengthy, complex sentence with multiple subjects and verbs; and that you supplied a list of three or more related items or phrases in a row.
A colon is an arrow pointing forward. It tells the reader that new information, which is promised by the wording before it, is about to arrive. The colon is especially handy for introducing an announced piece of evidence, a focused example, or a list. Contrary to popular belief, the colon can be used to point us forward to a single word or to an entire sentence, as in the old George Carlin joke: “Weather forecast for tonight: dark.”
A semicolon is a mark of co-dependency. This mark is so often confused with the colon that their distinction bears mention: “The colon is two dots; the semicolon is a comma below a dot.” As the explanation demonstrates, the semicolon is usually used to join phrases or sentences having grammatical equivalency, and it emphasizes that the joined parts are related, even co-dependent, in context.
A dash redefines what was just said. It is a powerful way to make an important aside or to tack on an additional comment of consequence—a comment that redefines. When typing the dash, be certain that you don’t type a hyphen, but two hyphens in a row or a long bar.
Common Punctuation Fixes
Comma After Introductory Element
It’s important to remember that introductory words and phrases—any words or phrases that come before the main clause in a sentence—should be set off with a comma. Here is an example of a sentence that does not include the required comma and then the correction:
- (Missing Comma) In case you were wondering I never allow myself to be exposed to direct sunlight unless I have my scarf my sunglasses, and a large umbrella.
- Correction: In case you were wondering, I never allow myself to be exposed to direct sunlight unless I have my scarf, my sunglasses, and a large umbrella.
When writers are first learning comma rules, they have a tendency to forget that the rules all depend upon the situation. So, when you learn to place a comma before a coordinating conjunction like and, but, or so when you join two independent clauses, you might have an urge to place a comma before and, but, or so every time you use these words. You should avoid this urge!
Just because you need to use commas with coordinating conjunctions sometimes doesn’t mean you’ll use them all the time.
- I have a wide variety of supernatural powers, but wish I had the power to go out in the daylight.
In this example, you don’t need a comma before the but because you aren’t combining two independent clauses. Here is a corrected version of the sentence:
- I have a wide variety of supernatural powers but wish I had the power to go out in the daylight.
You should also be careful that you aren’t using commas unnecessarily around information that is essential to the sentence. The comma rule is that non-essential information should be set off with commas, but essential information should not.
Just as you should not put commas around essential or restrictive information in a sentence, you must remember to put commas around information that is non-essential or nonrestrictive.
If the information is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, you need to be sure to set it off with commas. Here is an incorrect example of a sentence without proper commas around the nonrestrictive element:
- Moving into a cave especially one that is already occupied is not a decision one should make without considerable forethought.
Here is the corrected version:
- Moving into a cave, especially one that is already occupied, is not a decision one should make without considerable forethought.
When you join two independent clauses (complete sentences) with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet—also known as the FANBOYS), you must place a comma before the coordinating conjunction.
The rule is very clear, here. The comma before the coordinating conjunction works with the coordinating conjunction to help make a proper boundary between the two independent clauses.
Missing Comma in Compound Sentences
- I understand that vampires and ghouls need love but I don’t think they really understand just how attached I am to my vital, bodily fluids.
In this example, the sentence is missing the comma before the but because the but joins two complete thoughts. Leaving out this necessary comma creates an error because you have two sentences connected without a proper boundary between those sentences.
Here is a correction for the sentence:
- I understand that vampires and ghouls need love, but I don’t think they really understand just how attached I am to my vital, bodily fluids.
Now practice spotting some of these common editing concerns in the following activity.