Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
www.wilbers.com

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors:

The No-Excuse 12 (plus The Big 3)

There are 12 common punctuation errors that undermine the credibility of many on-the-job writers. In addition, another 3 punctuation errors are common but relatively harmless – that is, they reflect nonstandard usage, but they do not necessarily undermine the writer’s credibility or raise questions of basic literacy.

PRE-TEST

Can you identify all 15 errors in the following passage? Are you making any of these errors in your own writing?

My wife works part time registering, and placing children in the Minneapolis school system. Often her work brings her into contact not only with children but also with parents who have difficulty reading and writing.

Once she was helping a mother fill out a form; when she noticed something unusual. Under ‘marital status’ the woman had written, “Two times a week”.

Although, the woman had misunderstood the question, by some standard’s I guess that’s not so bad. But the mothers inability to read and understand a common term such as “marital status,” reflects a serious problem in American society.

“Adult Literacy in America,” a government study released in 1993 stated there are some 40 to 44 million Americans like her, adults who possess only the most rudimentary reading and writing skills. In it’s introduction, the study revealed that nearly half of all adult Americans read and write so poorly they have difficulty holding a decent job.

Who gets the blame for this shocking level of functional illiteracy in America?

You do. We do. The schools, the parents, and the students - we all do.

You may not agree, however, I believe we all bear some responsibility for the problem. High schools are awarding diplomas to students who can’t read or write. Parents are spending too little time interacting with their children. And students are devoting too little effort to their number one responsibility in life – getting educated.

Who pays the price for functional illiteracy in America?

We all do, and “we” includes: the business community which for years has complained about poor writing skills among the following groups; job applicants and new hires.

PRE-TEST ANSWERS

My wife works part time registering, [#5. Unnecessary comma between compound elements that are not independent clauses] and placing children in the Minneapolis school system. Often her work brings her into contact not only with children [Note: A comma is optional here; for a faster pace and less emphatic style, omit it.] but also with parents who have difficulty reading and writing.

Once she was helping a mother fill out a form; [#11. Semicolon between a subordinate clause and an independent clause] when she noticed something unusual. Under ‘marital status’ [#13. Single quotation marks for double quotation marks] the woman had written, “Two times a week”. [#14. Period outside rather than inside closing quotation marks]

Although, [#6. Unnecessary comma after although; in addition, commas are often used erroneously after and, but, and such as] the woman had misunderstood the question, by some standard’s [#10. Unnecessary apostrophe in a plural word] I guess that’s not so bad. But the mothers [#9. Missing apostrophe in a possessive] inability to read and understand a common term such as “marital status, [#4. Unnecessary comma between subject and verb]” reflects a serious problem in American society.

“Adult Literacy in America,” a government study released in 1993 [#2. Missing comma after a set-off phrase] stated there are some 40 to 44 million Americans like her, adults who possess only the most rudimentary reading and writing skills. In it’s [#8. It’s for its] introduction, the study revealed that nearly half of all adult Americans read and write so poorly they have difficulty holding a decent job.

Who gets the blame for this shocking level of functional illiteracy in America?

You do. We do. The schools, the parents, [Note: The serial comma the comma before the conjunction in a series of three or more items may be used or omitted.] and the students - [#15. Hyphen for a dash] we all do.

You may not agree, [#1. Comma splice – a comma between two independent clauses] however, I believe we all bear some responsibility for the problem. High schools are awarding diplomas to students who can’t read or write. Parents are spending too little time interacting with their children. And [Note: In all but the most formal writing, it is now permissible to begin a sentence with and or but.] students are devoting too little effort to their number one responsibility in life – getting educated.

Who pays the price for functional illiteracy in America?

We all do, and “we” includes: [#7. Unnecessary colon between a verb and its complement] the business community [#3. Missing nonrestrictive comma – a comma setting off a nonessential element] which for years has complained about poor writing skills among the following groups; [#12. Semicolon for a colon] job applicants and new hires.

THE NO-EXCUSE 12: Common Punctuation Errors

1. Comma splices (commas between independent or main clauses).

2. Missing commas after set-off words or phrases.

3. Missing nonrestrictive commas (commas setting off nonessential elements).

4. Unnecessary commas between subjects and verbs (often after restrictive elements).

5. Unnecessary commas between compound elements that are not independent clauses.

6. Unnecessary commas after although, and, but, and such as.

7. Unnecessary colons between verbs and their complements and between prepositions and their objects.

8. It’s or its’ for its.

9. Missing apostrophes in possessives (especially in possessives referring to time, as in a good day’s work and two weeks’ vacation).

10. Unnecessary apostrophes in plural words.

11. Semicolons between subordinate clauses and independent clauses.

12. Semicolons for colons.

THE BIG 3: Relatively Harmless Punctuation Errors

(These common errors represent nonstandard usage, but do not necessarily undermine credibility or raise questions of literacy.)

13. Single quotation marks for double quotation marks.

14. Commas and periods outside – rather than inside – closing quotation marks.

15. Hyphens for dashes.

Note: The serial comma – the comma before the conjunction in a series of three or more items – may be used or omitted. Both practices are correct as long as one or the other is followed consistently.

POST-TEST

Can you identify The No-Excuse 12 and The Big 3 in the following passage? Are you still making any of these punctuation errors in your own writing?

For years, Americas employers have been saying that high school, and college graduates, even some MBA’s lack the necessary writing skills to perform effectively on the job.

Are America’s high school English classes and college composition courses failing to teach students how to write? Is the educational establishment failing to do its’ job?

According to Heather MacDonald, contributing editor of The City Journal in New York City, the answer is a resounding yes. The reason; Composition teachers are so preoccupied with various cultural and political trends that they are teaching students everything but how “to compose clear, logical prose.” In fact, she claims, “Every writing theory of the past 30 years has come up with reasons why it’s not necessary to teach grammar and style.”

In the summer 1995 issue of The Public Interest, MacDonald chronicles the history of misguided efforts that have given us “an indigestible stew of 1960s liberationist zeal, 1970s deconstructivist nihilism, and 1980s multicultural proselytizing.”

She attributes the beginning of this decline to: what she calls “the Woodstock of the composition professions”, a 1966 conference of American and British writing teachers at Dartmouth College. According to MacDonald, the gathering reflected the political culture of the time: “It was anti-authoritarian and liberationist; it celebrated inarticulateness and error as proof of authenticity.”

The Dartmouth conference, gave rise to the “process school of composition” whose most influential practitioner, Peter Elbow, author of Writing Without Teachers, “emphasizes that writing is a continuous process, composed mostly of rewriting.” Although MacDonald concedes that some of Elbow’s ideas and techniques – such as, multiple drafting and ‘free writing’ – have merit; she claims that “elevating process has driven out standards,” lost is the notion that a piece of student writing can and should be judged “by an objective measure of coherence and correctness” - an assumption few in the business community would question.

POST-TEST ANSWERS

For years, [Note: The comma is optional.] Americas [#9. Missing apostrophe in a possessive] employers have been saying that high school, [#5. Unnecessary comma between compound elements that are not independent clauses] and college graduates, even some MBA’s [#10. Unnecessary apostrophe in a plural word] [#2. Missing comma after a set-off phrase] lack the necessary writing skills to perform effectively on the job.

Are America’s high school English classes and college composition courses failing to teach students how to write? Is the educational establishment failing to do its’ [#8. Its’ for its] job?

According to Heather MacDonald, contributing editor of The City Journal in New York City, the answer is a resounding yes. The reason; [#12. Semicolon for a colon] Composition teachers are so preoccupied with various cultural and political trends that they are teaching students everything but how “to compose clear, logical prose.” In fact, she claims, “Every writing theory of the past 30 years has come up with reasons why it’s not necessary to teach grammar and style.”

In the summer 1995 [Note: Commas are unnecessary before and after the year when the year is used in conjunction with a season or a month, as in fall 1998 or April 1999.] issue of The Public Interest, MacDonald chronicles the history of misguided efforts that have given us “an indigestible stew of 1960s [Note: An apostrophe before the s is unnecessary when figures are used to denote decades; an apostrophe is used, however, when the century is omitted, as in the ’60s.] liberationist zeal, 1970s deconstructivist nihilism, [Note: The serial comma – the comma before the conjunction in a series of three or more items – may be used or omitted.] and 1980s multicultural proselytizing.”

She attributes the beginning of this decline to: [#7. Unnecessary colon between a preposition and its object.] what she calls “the Woodstock of the composition professions”, [#14. Comma outside rather than inside closing quotation marks] a 1966 conference of American and British writing teachers at Dartmouth College. According to MacDonald, the gathering reflected the political culture of the time: “It was anti-authoritarian and liberationist; it celebrated inarticulateness and error as proof of authenticity.”

The Dartmouth conference, [#4. Unnecessary comma between subject and verb] gave rise to the “process school of composition” [#3. Missing nonrestrictive comma – a comma setting off a nonessential element] whose most influential practitioner, Peter Elbow, author of Writing Without Teachers, “emphasizes that writing is a continuous process, composed mostly of rewriting.” Although MacDonald concedes that some of Elbow’s ideas and techniques – such as, [#6. Unnecessary comma after such as] multiple drafting and ‘free writing’ [#13. Single quotation marks for double quotation marks] – have merit; [#11. Semicolon between a subordinate clause and an independent clause] she claims that “elevating process has driven out standards,” [#1. Comma splice] lost is the notion that a piece of student writing can and should be judged “by an objective measure of coherence and correctness” - [#15. Hyphen for a dash.] an assumption few in the business community would question.


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