Monthly Archives: February 2012

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.


Filed under Proofreading