Celebrate National Punctuation Day by Avoiding These 5 Common Mistakes

Image: Horia Varlan
Image: Horia Varlan

Today is National Punctuation Day. To celebrate this prestigious occasion, the PR News editors put our heads together and came up with our top punctuation pet peeves. Avoid these gaffes (and stay on our good side).

1. Double space: Yes, the space is a punctuation point. Don't wear it out. There only needs to be one space after the end of the sentence. Adding two just means a lot of frustrating corrections on our end. And don't get me started on triple spaces…or ellipses! (Every major style guide prescribes a single space after a period, according to Slate.Editors)

2. Its vs. it's: This is an easy mistake to make, and we're all guilty of sending out an incorrect tweet in a moment of excitement or fury. For the record, per the famous Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL), here's the proper usage:

Its and it's are not the same thing. It's is a contraction for "it is" and its is a possessive pronoun meaning "belonging to it." It's raining out = it is raining out. A simple way to remember this rule is the fact that you don't use an apostrophe for the possessive his or hers, so don't do it with its.

3. Misplaced semicolons: Semicolons can be used three ways according to OWL. The first is to join two independent clauses when the second clause restates the first or when the two clauses are of equal emphasis. The second is to connect two independent clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb or a transition. The final way is to join elements of a series when individual items of the series already include commas. Don't throw these around willy nilly. They have very specific guidelines for use.

4. Gratuitous use of quotation marks: Using quotation marks to designate something as ironic or novel has the official seal of approval from the folks at OWL. However, using it around every other word is annoying, difficult on your readers' eyes and has the opposite intended effect.

5. Overuse of the exclamation point: This author is guilty of this on my Twitter feed (I'm just excited a lot of the time.) But, the exclamation point has no place in professional writing. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” Heed his advice.

Follow Lucia Davis: @LKCDavis.

  • grammargal

    There should be a space before your first and after your last ellipses.

    • Bene Factus

      or … at the begining and end of the elipsis.

  • Andrew

    You used an exclamation point at the end of your first rule.

    • Lucia Davis

      I said I was guilty of that, didn’t I? :)

      • Валентин Савин

        I said I was guilty of that, wasn’t I? :)

  • Tonya Sadowsky

    I was taught two spaces after a sentence. I don’t see the problem with that so much as the rest of this. It may have just been for readability back in the typing days, I don’t know. Microsoft Word was the first I knew that anyone else in the entire world didn’t place two space after a sentence (or the state before the zip code).

    • Kait

      I was recently told that in the day of typewriters the double space after a period was necessary and that with modern word processors the extra space is programed in and thus doesn’t need to be manually added.

      • Tonya Sadowsky

        Thanks! I never knew that.

    • LC

      two spaces is absurd and antiquated. People haven’t done that in 25 years

      • Tonya Sadowsky

        Incorrect. If you’re going to personally insult someone, at least put your name on here.

  • DrEas

    Yes and no. Regardless the one space punctuation police, two spaces at the end of a sentence is a visual marker. One space loses visual margin. If it were true, no need for paragraphs or indenting or em dashes… (Ellipses used to irritate.) Sticking to two spaces.

    • Some Guy

      I agree. I’m sticking with two spaces. I don’t understand why the single-spacers are so aggressive about this “rule.” Either is acceptable. A single space is not necessary or even helpful for clarity of writing; no one is going to misconstrue a paragraph because two spaces were used between sentences.

      • LC

        either is not acceptable. that’s the issue

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  • JLS

    I am wondering which one of these was meant to be used in the article.
    Full Definition of ELLIPSE
    a: oval b: a closed plane curve generated by a point moving in such a way that the sums of its distances from two fixed points is a constant : a plane section of a right circular cone that is a closed curve
    Full Definition of ELLIPSIS
    a: the omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically complete b: a sudden leap from one topic to another
    : marks or a mark (as …) indicating an omission (as of words) or a pause

    • Art Alexion

      This is what happens when you decide to live in that glass house. If you choose to write an article concerning proper usage, the article shouldn’t contain a fair amount of improper usage.

  • http://lovinggodandman.blogspot.com/ Matt Stephens

    Ditto on what Tonya said. All my English courses in high school taught double-spacing at the end of a sentence as the proper way to punctuate. The intent was/is to provide a visual break.

    • plainclarity

      When you, I and many of the rest of those engaging in this commentary were in high school, two spaces was correct. AP Style, which is what all PR people in the U.S. should be using, now mandates a single space. I’m also a reporter and one space after the period has long been correct.

      • http://lovinggodandman.blogspot.com/ Matt Stephens

        How I made it through graduate school without being required to write in AP, I’m not sure. But I did learn something today, so thank you.

  • Johnny A

    Rules like #1 give punctuation a bad name. And why is this #1?

  • Ivy

    People have a problem with commas in any kind of writing. Some common uses are
    separating a series of items, separating independent clauses with a conjunction, and separating a prepositional phrase within a sentence. Comma use should not be confused with semi-colon use.

  • Ron

    Two spaces after a period, one after a comma. Simple and straight forward. This rule was first, and who gave you or anyone permission to change it? Not me.

    • Brian

      It is archaic. Because we no longer use typewriters, it is no longer needed. Period (one space).

  • HT

    News releases have one spwace after a period. It saves space in newspapers. User two spaces in writing letters and other formal correspondence.

  • HT

    Oops! And proofread before you post! My bad. “space” and “Use”

  • Garnet Stone

    Our dog was found in it’s house.

    • Sharon

      Our dog was found in it’s house.
      should be:
      Our dog was found in its house.
      (Don’t use an apostrophe when “its” is a possessive pronoun.)

  • Nemo

    It doesn’t relate to punctuation, but in your paragraph 5 you change from 3rd person (this author) to first person (my twitter feed) in the middle of the first sentence. Tsk. Also, you put the period inside the parentheses. Tsk tsk. “It’s” can also be a contraction of “it has”.

  • BioMajor

    APA style guide recommends using two spaces after periods ending sentences to aid readability. APA is most commonly used in social sciences. MLA & AP style suggest to use a single space after a period. Both are correct, although MLA has become more popular of late. One just needs to be consistent throughout the document as to which style she/he is using.

    • http://lovinggodandman.blogspot.com/ Matt Stephens

      Precisely as I learned and have experienced all the way through graduate school. Consistency–except for those publishing under certain style guidelines–is key.

  • BioMajor

    APA style guide suggests using two spaces after periods to aid readability, and that is what many of us were taught in HS and college. APA is most commonly used in social sciences. MLS & AP styles suggest a single space, and they have become more popular of late. Both are correct in most academic situations; one just needs to be consistent in a document as to which style she/he is using. For electronic manuscripts, most publishers require a single space. But even MLA recognizes it’s a stylistic difference, and there is nothing wrong with using two spaces unless an instructor or an editor requests otherwise.

    APA: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/24/
    MLA: http://www.mla.org/style/style_faq/mlastyle_spaces

  • Andrew Steeds

    The full point (period) in number 5 should come outside the closing bracket, not inside. Your explanation of the uses of a semicolon are not entirely clear. The key thing about two independent clauses joined in that way is that the second should be saying something different from the first (the semicolon in this context is similar to the conjunction ‘whereas’). More prosaically, the other use is to separate items in a list, or coordinate clauses in a compound sentence, that have their own internal punctuation in the form of a comma and which therefore cannot be clearly differentiated by a separating comma.

    Oh, and it’s always been one space after a period (full stop) or other terminal punctuation in typesetting and typography. It’s only typewriting (and Pitman’s, RSA and others who have based their teaching of keyboard skills on that) that has advised double spaces. All typefaces and fonts are built on the basis of a single space.

    • Bene Factus

      Your explanation of the uses of a semicolon IS not entirely clear.

      • Andrew Steeds

        Ha ha, you’re right!. Thanks for pointing that out. Shows how susceptible we all are to the odd misuse of punctuation or grammatical solecism!

  • Virgil Scudder

    I think you missed the most obvious one: the use of an apostrophe to denote plural, i.e., “the best CEO’s are…” It doesn’t belong there. This is a very common mistake.

  • Jon Garner

    Thanks Lucia. These are not mistakes you’ll find professional writers make. I’m sure amateurs make them a lot. Unfortunately, the perceived value of using professional, trained writers continues to drop.

    An amateur can even compromise a portfolio. I may have to remove a website from mine because of this. Whoever has been making the updates since I left the company has used it’s as possessive a couple times right on the home page. It’s a glaring error.

    Re: two spaces, that went out years ago. I saw a discussion about this a couple weeks ago. However, I always double space in my emails and I always will. In my emails, it’s more important to me to make them easy to read than to follow the AP Style Guide.

  • JaneL

    First time I’ve visited your Web site, and I have a question: “PR News” is singular (ex., PR News Announces Platinum PR Awards), so why treat it as plural with possessives (ex, PR News’ WRITING BOOT CAMP)?

  • KidRichie

    Is this article the result of Political Correctness Grammar?

  • Phil Ware

    Double space at the end of sentences ended with the beginning of the web and also with kerning and individual spacing for each letter based upon readability. Extra spaces are often automatically trimmed by internet browsers. Book editors then adopted the principle — saves paper because imagine the space difference in a book when there is only one space after a period. Save trees, help eyes, drop the double space! It was different for me twelve years ago when I had to make myself not type a double space after a period, but in two or three days, I was cured. It is now proper style. Just like language changes, so do the rules of style.

  • Sharon

    Another common mistake is the misplaced apostrophe. Why do some people assume that if a word ends in “s,” it must be accompanied by an apostrophe? Apostrophes are used in contractions and to denote possession–not to form plurals.

    • http://lovinggodandman.blogspot.com/ Matt Stephens

      One of my pet peeves, without a doubt!

  • Garnet Stone

    An apostrophe is used in the case of ownership unless it is something that is not tangible. That is what I was taught along with two spaces after a period and one after a comma.

    • http://lovinggodandman.blogspot.com/ Matt Stephens

      Except in the case of pronouns (his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, etc.).

  • Peter Oakley

    How stupid. Look at any competent typesetting from the golden age of printing, 1830 to 1850. There is more or less a triple space after a fullstop and a double space after a colon or semicolon. It makes the text readable. Look at any incompetent American typesetting with single spacing after fullstops. Ugly and hard reading. I think the habit of single spacing after fullstops arose from some hopeless Microsoft wordprocessing programme that would crash if you punctuated correctly. Rather than correct the hopeless software, they put it about that your should type wrongly.

  • shegge

    Another one. Misuse of their and there.

  • Guest

    Tough crowd.

  • Melissa J. Dixon

    This article and the conversations taking place in the comments make me so very, very happy. It excites me when people care about grammar and punctuation. Care seems to be lacking in these areas anymore. Perhaps it’s because of the popularity of blogging, the new-ish virtual soap box for anyone with an opinion or the self-made platform to finally be heard? It’s also shockingly evident in plenty of printed books (even text books). I’m assuming this is in large part because of the ease with which one can now self-publish. Whatever the case, thank you for bringing attention to punctuation. It IS important, it is! :-)

  • Tony

    Double space, single space – it’s a matter of style, not a rule of physics; let it go. However apostrophe ‘s. If you don’t know how to use this you do not know how to write. Its usage is critical as it’s essential to the meaning of the sentence.
    Colons and semi-colons; I have never received a good rule when to use either. Unfortunately this article was no help. The language needs simplifying and examples provided.
    Exclamation points
    I was taught they were to be used at the end of a command. Halt! Ready, set, go! You will be there at ten o’clock!

  • Bob Benson

    You missed one of the worst. In English pant is a verb and pants is a noun. Dogs pant and you wear pants. The statement, “This is a lovely pant,” in reference to a pair of slacks sound illiterate, put-on and often is said a bit of a hoity toity manner, like the speaker thinks he or she speak English more correctly than the masses. In English we use the plural for what goes on our legs and feet, e.g. shoes, socks, slacks, pants, boxers, briefs, panties, trunks, knickers etc.

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