Thursday, January 14, 2016

6 Common Punctuation Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

By Laurisa White Reyes, @lwreyes

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Good punctuation skills are vital to writers no matter which publishing path they take, but are especially so for those traveling the indie path. Indie authors don't have the benefit of a stable of copy editors and proofreaders and must ensure their novels are in tip-top shape all on their own. First-timers to self publishing (and those with tight budgets) can't always afford a proofreader or editor to review their manuscripts, so it's up to them to get it to a professional level on their own. Please help me welcome Laurisa White Reyes to the lecture hall today, to help us with some pesky punctuation rules.

Laurisa holds a Master’s degree in English, is the Senior Editor at Skyrocket Press, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Middle Shelf Magazine. She is also the author of several fiction and non-fiction books, including The Celestine Chronicles and The Crystal Keeper series, The Storytellers, and Teaching Kids to Write Well: 6 Secrets Every Grown-Up Should Know. Her debut young adult novel, Contact, is set to be released in 2016 with Evernight Teen Publishing.

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Take it away Laurisa...

As a professional editor and published author, one of the most humbling lessons I have learned is that the ability to tell a story well does not guarantee one’s mastery over the technical side of writing. While the capacity to imagine entire worlds into being comes naturally to most of us, the rules of grammar and punctuation are not so intrinsic.

Far too many writers do not use punctuation correctly. Otherwise compelling and well-written stories are too often riddled with mistakes. The problem is that while the author may not notice, her readers will. Many readers are quite adept at spotting typos and don’t appreciate finding them in their books.

How can writers avoid these kinds of errors? First, by knowing what errors to avoid, and second, by being conscious of them while writing and editing.

While the types of mistakes writers make are myriad, there are six in particular that are among the most common. If a writer could master even these, her manuscript would be far more polished than it might otherwise be.

Take a moment to become aware of these six errors, and the next time you write or edit a manuscript, you will be far less likely to make them.

Let’s begin by testing your knowledge of basic punctuation rules. Correct the following sentences. Then read through the rules listed below. Again, these are just the six most common mistakes writers make. For a complete list of rules, I suggest reading a guide, such as The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein or visiting the Owl Purdue Online Writing Lab.

You’ll find the answer key to the sentences at the end of the post.


The dogs owner took his parents dogs for a walk.

Bill told his mom, John said, Oh boy! Santa Claus is coming to town!

Last night Ann bought milk eggs and flour and then she bought a big beige vacuum cleaner.

Its a perfect day for the boat to cast off it’s moorings.

The 12 year old boy rode the merry go round the very old one in central park.


1. Apostrophes (possessive form)

Apostrophes are used to denote the possessive form of nouns.
  • For singular nouns, place the apostrophe before the s: ‘s Ex. The car’s bumper
  • For plural nouns, place the apostrophe after the s: s’ The cars’ bumpers
  • For nouns ending in s or ss, either place an apostrophe after the s, or add ‘s. Either form is correct, but do it consistently. Ex. The class’s chalkboard -or- Chris’ pencil
  • The only exception is for the pronoun IT. (See below.)

2. Quotation Marks

Quotation marks denote dialog or a direct quote. (Note: These rules apply within the United States. Other English-speaking countries have different rules.)
  • DON’T use single or double quotation marks for emphasis. Use bold or italics instead. Ex. We offer the ‘best price in town’! Uh, no.
  • DO use double quotation marks to denote a term or expression used in an unusual way. Ex. He did some "experimenting" in his college days.
  • DO place the end punctuation inside the final quotation mark. Ex. Jim said, “I am fine.”
  • DO use single quotation marks for a quote within a quote. Ex. He said, “Dan cried, ‘Do not treat me that way.’ ”
  • DON’T use closing quotation marks if the dialog runs into a new paragraph, but DO begin the new paragraph with opening quotation marks.

3. Missing or Misplaced Commas

There are many, many, many rules for commas. Some important ones to remember are:
  • DO use a comma between two independent clauses connected with a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet). Ex. Bill walked to town, and he went to the store.
  • DON’T use a comma before a dependent clause. Ex. Bill walked to town and went to the store.
  • DO place a comma after an introductory phrase but before the main clause. Ex. In the past, John would ride his bike to work.
  • DO use commas between the introduction to a quotation and the quotation itself. Ex. John said, “Jane is cute.”
  • DO use commas to separate two adjectives that describe the same noun. Ex. The rusty, red car is ugly.
  • DO use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

4. The Oxford Comma

The Oxford Comma is used to separate items in a list.
  • DO use a comma between the last two items in the list and before the conjunction. Ex. She asked for thumb tacks, tape, and scissors.

Note that the Oxford Comma is not a hard and fast rule, particularly in fiction. However, it is best to use it when writing non-fiction or technical text.

5. It’s vs. Its

  • IT’S is the contraction of IT IS or IT HAS. Ex. It’s time to go to sleep.
  • ITS is the possessive form of IT. Ex. The dog keeps chasing its tail. (This is the only example I know of where a possessive form of a noun does NOT use an apostrophe.)

6. Hyphen vs. Em Dash

  • Hyphens are used in some compound words and to connect sections of words broken into two lines on a page. Ex. Jim’s mother-in-law is a good cook.
  • Em dashes are longer than hyphens and can be used in place of commas, parentheses, and colons to emphasize a word or phrase, or to denote a pause.
  • DON’T place spaces before or after em dashes (except when using AP style.)


The dog’s owner took his parents’ dogs for a walk.

Bill told his mom, “John said, ‘Oh boy! Santa Claus is coming to town!’ ”

Last night, Ann bought milk, eggs, and flour, and then she bought a big, beige vacuum cleaner.

It’s a perfect day for the boat to cast off its moorings.

The 12-year-old boy rode the merry-go-round—the very old one in central park.

About Contact

Mira wants to die. She’s attempted suicide twice already and failed. Every time she comes in contact with another person, skin to skin, that person’s psyche uploads into hers. While her psychologist considers this a gift, for Mira it’s a curse from which she cannot escape.

To make matters worse, Mira’s father is being investigated for the deaths of several volunteer test subjects of the miracle drug Gaudium. Shortly after Mira’s mother starts asking questions, she ends up in a coma. Although her father claims it was an accident, thanks to her “condition” Mira knows the truth, but proving it just might get her killed.

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  1. Hooray, I did the test correctly! Now, why can't I find those errors in my own stuff! LOL Well, there are getting easier to find, so that's a good thing.

    1. Now that you are more conscious of them, you will probably not make the same errors as often. :)

  2. Forgive my pedantry, but "How can writers avoid these kind of errors?" is a pet peeve.

    Better to use "this kind" or "these kinds."

    1. Good eye! Yep, even the best editors and writers still make typos. :0

  3. It drives me crazy when I see grammatical errors in books. One or two, sure. It happens. One or two on every page or paragraph? I won't read it. I'm glad you posted this. I happily shared on Twitter.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Staci. I agree. I don't mind a few errors in a book. Most manuscripts go through many edits prior to publication, but due to human error, a few mistakes inevitably slip through. But more than that is a sign of sloppy editing.

  4. Thanks for the reminders, Laurisa. I see errors in books all the time, and it drives me nuts. Let's hope this column has wide readership, and it helps prevent some errors from slipping through.

    1. I hope so, too, Rosi. And thanks for stopping by.

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  6. One of my biggest pet peeves is when writers put a comma before a list, like this: "Ann bought, milk, eggs, and flour." I also cringe whenever I see unnecessary commas after "that," as in, "John believed that, he was right." It has never made any sense to me. As an editor, is the ever a time when either of these would be correct?

  7. Thank you for this brilliantly simple, yet clear, exposition. The examples are perfect for helping me recall the correct forms. I am usually aware of the rules, and got all but two of these correct, but find it difficult to recall which is the "do" and which is the "don't". Rewriting to avoid an error because I am uncertain is far more tedious than making a simple correction.

    1. Just being aware is a good step. Even after being an editor for more than a decade, I still make boo boos. We all do.

  8. Thank you for this succinct summary.

  9. The most common error I see reading self-pubs is a failure to use a comma when addressing someone. It should be--

    "Jane, come here."

    Not "Jane come here."

    1. That is true. I always urge self-published authors to please, please hire a professional to edit their work. It is worth the investment. Thanks for your comment, Marilynn.

  10. Very good, except that a boat cannot cast off its own moorings.

  11. Great tips. However, the part about needing a comma to separate adjectives needs a bit of clarification. Commas are needed to separate coordinate adjectives, as in "the gorgeous, friendly spy." The example you gave uses cumulative adjectives and doesn't need a comma, as is usually the case when one or more of the adjectives relates to color, age, shape, or size. There's a great article explaining how to tell whether adjectives are coordinate or cumulative here:

    Nerdily yours,
    ~Joyce Scarbrough

    1. Excellent comment. I felt that was a bit more detailed than what I had time to explore in this post, but you are completely right.

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  13. Editors and proofreaders are not a luxury, they're a necessity,and anyone who suggests that they are not an essential part of the publishing process for indie authors, as they are for all other methods of publication, are adding to the plethora of poor quality books that readers have to wade through. To think that it's okay to publish without using the services of a professional editor is the height of ignorance and those who share this view to the gullible who are happy to believe it because it saves them a few bucks are doing the whole indie publishing industry a major disservice. If an author doesn't think their book is worth paying money out on to make it a professional product, then what makes them think it's worth publishing? You mention first-timers as an example of those who might not use professional services and as if that's okay, but in my experience, the first timers need them the most. I'm appalled that someone with your knowledge could sanction publishing unedited books.

    1. Just to clarify... I wrote the introduction, not the guest author who wrote the post.

      I agree that anyone who wants to self publish should hire and editor and proofreader. The more professional a product, the better off they'll be. But I'm also a realist who understands that not everyone can afford to do that, and and if they have the resources to put out a professional product without spending that money, they have the right to do so.

      I'm not sanctioning unedited books.

      I'm saying that every writer has to figure out how to put out a professional product as best they can. Some will barter with other writers for these services, other will pay for them, others will do the very best they can on their own.

      First-timers to the self publishing path can still be professional authors with years of experience in the traditional market and access to professional services at little to no cost. I'll be happy to edit that to clarify, as I'm certainly not talking about first-time writers.

      Hope that clears things up.