Proofreading that pesky punctuation

 

Dutch painting by Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck, Madonna des Kanonikus Georg van der Paele, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Proofreading a project involves many things. To avoid embarrassing mistakes, you need to make sure that words are spelled properly, sentences flow logically from one thought to another, all facts are correct, and telephone numbers, addresses, zip codes, page numbers and so on have the right digits in the right order.

And then there’s punctuation…I’ve noticed that next to spelling, punctuation seems to give people the most trouble. As a proofreader, I corral unruly punctuation marks and tame them into submission with my red pen and proofreader’s marks. These punctuation marks resent being domesticated and stalk off into a corner to shoot me moody glares, but if I want a project to be clear and easy to read, then it’s got to be done.

Here are the main culprits:

1. Comma — The comma appears far too frequently in many sentences, especially if the writer runs on and on and on. Many sentences should have commas either deleted entirely or the sentence should be broken up to form two sentences.

2. Semi-colon — This punctuation mark is used to join two sentences together, but I’ve seen it used to replace commas in wordy, jargon-filled sentences. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

3. Period — Most people get this one right, but the period annoys me by appearing at the end of sentence fragments which should really be converted into complete sentences.

4. Colon — It steals the semi-colon’s limelight by being used where a semi-colon should appear.

Proofreading punctuation in other languages gets even MORE complex because the rules change. In German and French, the decimal point between numbers is replaced by either a comma or a blank space. For example, the number 1.5 in English would appear as 1,5 in German or French.

To help writers with punctuation, some helpful folks created writing guides such as the Associated Press Stylebook, the Government Printing Office Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style. Here, the rules for using punctuation are clearly defined. But even these books differ regarding where punctuation should go. Oh, boy.

The punctuation is there in sentences to help your reader clearly understand what you mean, whether you have a blog, a novel or anything else. Punctuation is like salt: Use it in moderation, don’t overdo, and your readers will thank you.

If you ever run into trouble with punctuation marks, let me know. My red pen has even the most feisty punctuation shrieking and trembling with terror.

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12 Comments

Filed under Proofreading

12 responses to “Proofreading that pesky punctuation

  1. Samir

    Yowza… sounds like a daunting task 🙂
    I’m definitely glad there are brave people like you out there to use those red pens.

    • Chasing punctuation around can be exhausting, but somebody’s got to do it. The hardest part is taming the comma — he’s a cheeky little imp and has been known to stick out his tongue at me when I’m catching him and his siblings.

  2. I was taught to write by a freelance writer who worked at my art school trying to teach a bunch of artists to write. She approached the task in a completely different way, and it made sense to me. My biggest challenge is dangling participles (I think that is what they are called). To tell you the truth, they are quite pesky and I really don’t even understand them. My 12-year-old tried to explain them to me yet again, and still I am not sure how to avoid them. My best approach is to simply let my work sit for 24 hours and then read it out loud. As I read it, I add appropriate pauses as I listen to myself read. I try to stick to simple sentence structure. Yet I still end up with dangling participles at the end of my sentences. Can you help with that problem?
    Peace and Harmony,
    Sallyjane

  3. Helloooo…where were you 2 years ago…I need a live-in editor.

    Thank you for this!

  4. Nice post! I wasn’t aware of the usage of a comma in place of a decimal in German or French. Using simple and short sentences surely helps.

  5. One of my favourite instances of poor punctuation was found in the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” which featured its own marvellous error somewhere early in the introduction…

    I’m often annoyed by the poor editing shown in many of the novels I read, particularly towards the end. Editor getting bored? Or perhaps enjoying the story a bit too much? 🙂

  6. I just got my first couple of writing assignments back and apparently I have terrible punctuation. 😦 These have been great tips. Keep them coming! (oh and anything else you can recommend) Cx

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