In the written English language, punctuation is largely based upon emphasising natural speech patterns and highlighting regular rhythms and features such as long and short pauses. The basic rules of punctuation can be complex and unique, making them difficult for foreign writers of English to emulate.
So no matter how fluent and perfect your spoken English, avoiding basic mistakes can at times be a difficult task. After all, even seasoned native speakers can find transferring their spoken English abilities into written skills a hard task!
Helping you to become more aware of when and how common punctuation mistakes are likely to occur, the following is a basic outline of writing course instruction, which alongside showing you how to avoid errors, can improve and polish your overall outlook on writing and increase your professional written appearance.
As an example, common and easily avoidable punctuation mistakes include:
Unnecessary comma use
Commas (,) are used to mark slight breaks or pauses within a sentence, often increasing clarity and meaning by separating words, phrases or clauses. Frequently used in lists or to mark out certain parts of a sentence, one of the many uses of the comma is to separate two complete thoughts with a conjunction:
- I went to the shop, and bought some milk.
- I went to the shop, and I bought some milk.
In this example, which is right?
The two complete thoughts are “I went to the shop,” and “I bought some milk,”
As commas are used to signify these two thoughts as separate entities within a whole, B is the correct sentence. A does not show the thoughts individually; rather it presents them as one. Therefore if you wanted to use version A of the sentence, you should remove the comma entirely, making it “I went to the shop and bought some milk,”
Another frequently made mistake is to place a comma before the word ‘that’. In other similar Germanic root languages such as Danish, a comma is used before a subordinate clause, however in English it is not. Mistakes such as this have a tendency to sharply stand out in a piece of writing, and can instantly reveal the writer as either lacking or a foreign speaker.
Incorrect or unnecessary colons
Colons (:) and semi-colons (;) appear to be similar but have importantly differing uses.
A colon is most often used to show a pause before introducing a list or relevant information, whereas a semi-colon is used more as a break in a sentence; stronger than a comma, but not as final as a full stop.
Regarding colons, a common mistake is to use a colon between a verb and its compliment, for example:
In order to complete this project, I will need: some wood.
As colons are used to introduce a series of items, including the colon is unnecessary. To display how a colon could be used correctly, the sentence would better read:
In order to complete this project, I will need: wood, glue, nails and paint.
Using apostrophes to indicate plurality
Correctly using apostrophes (‘) to indicate a plural is one of the most basic, yet common mistakes in the written English language. Though there are various rules dictating what to do to a noun to make it into a plural (such as turning octopus into octopi) introducing apostrophes – to show possession or omission – can be one of the most telling and devastating mistakes to make when forming a professional piece of work.
Two basic examples from the wide variety of possible apostrophe uses include:
Possession: For singular nouns and personal names
The dog’s collar. (This shows possession of the collar by the –a single – dog.)
Brian’s banana. (Again, the addition of ‘apostrophe + s’ indicates the possession)
Omission: To show when letters or numbers are not included
I’m (A conjunction of ‘I am,’ – the apostrophe shows the omission of the ‘a’ in ‘am’)
Didn’t (A conjunction of ‘did not,’ – the apostrophe shows the omission of the ‘o’ in ‘not’)
He’ll (A conjunction of ‘he will’)
“It happened back in ‘76” (Here the apostrophe shows the omission of the full numerical year – 1976)
Though this is just a brief overview, you should now be more aware of the many punctuation errors you could learn and avoid in order to improve your writing skills. Giving you potential to increase your grades, enhance your professional standing, or simply make daily writing tasks that little bit easier, by making what at first can appear to be just small corrections and learning the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, you could affect and improve the flow of any piece of writing you create; whether for business purposes or otherwise.
Alastair is a freelance writer who is obsessed with punctuation! He supplied this article for a communications training company who provide writing courses to business professionals.