The Language Perfectionist: Punctuation Peccadilloes

I titled a recent column “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.”  

An eagle-eyed reader pointed out that the sentence contains an error called a “comma splice.” Because the two phrases could be complete sentences, they should be separated by a semicolon, not a comma. But as I noted, I was quoting the title of a 1970s Broadway musical. The playwright knew what she was doing. Because the show is about ghetto life and uses street language, the “intellectual” semicolon would have looked out of place.

Here are some other punctuation errors I spotted in the media:

  • Missing hyphen: “Mr. Obama will deliver his State of the Union address Wednesday night. The word is that he will offer some small bore assistance to the middle class.”

A compound adjective (also called a phrasal adjective) that precedes a noun should be hyphenated. Some exceptions to the rule exist, but in this case a hyphen is required. Correct: “small-bore assistance.”

  • Misplaced apostrophe: “Authorities also broke up a ring of airline thieves in St. Louis who… were targeting soldier’s bags that were shipping off to war.”

Most likely, the crooks weren’t stealing just one soldier’s bag, so the word should be plural possessive: “soldiers’ bags.” Errors involving possessive apostrophes are remarkably frequent.

  • Extraneous commas: “Google executive, Alan Davidson, spoke at the same hearing….”

The above sentence is restrictive — meaning that “Alan Davidson” is essential information and, thus, should not be placed between a pair of commas. A pair of commas properly frames an appositional phrase that’s nonrestrictive, or optional. Example: “Victor Hugo, a French author, wrote Les Miserables.

If the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction is tough to remember, try this tip: If you were to read the Google sentence aloud, you wouldn’t pause naturally before and after the executive’s name. That’s a signal that the commas are superfluous.

  • Misused parentheses: “Frank Goode… is a retired worker (at a wire factory) and a father of four who suffers from an unspecified ailment brought on by the toxic coating applied to the wire.”

A few exceptions aside, parentheses should be used only for optional or peripheral references — that is, content that could be deleted without affecting the rest of the piece. But the mention of his working “at a wire factory” is clearly not peripheral. If the parenthetical phrase were deleted, the subsequent reference to “wire” wouldn’t make sense. Solution: Delete the parentheses.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]
  • Bradr

    I was proofreading an essay my 13 year old daughter is writing and one of the sentences is as follows:

    They only do housework, and they are expected to bear sons for their husbands.

    My daughter insists that she learned having a comma per the above is proper. Based upon what I learned from your article the comma seems superfluous. Can you please set the record straight for me?

    Thanks a lot,
    Brad