5.3: Proofreading for Punctuation

 

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Identify and correct punctuation errors involving commas, apostrophes, colons and semicolons, parentheses and brackets, quotation marks, hyphens and dashes, question and exclamation marks, and periods.
2. ENL1813 Course Learning Requirement 1: Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

    1. Apply proper use of sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation (ENL1813 CLR B1.5)
    2. Use a systematic approach to edit, revise, and proofread (ENL1813 CLR R5.3)
    3. Spell, punctuate, and use vocabulary correctly (ENL1813A CLR 1.2)
    4. Edit and proofread documents to eliminate errors (ENL1813 CLRs H1.5, I1.5, M1.6, S1.6, T1.5)
    5. Revise documents to improve clarity, correctness, and coherence (ENL1813 CLRs G1.5, P1.4, R7.4)

As the little marks added between words, punctuation is like a system of traffic signs: it guides the reader towards the intended meaning of the words just as road signs guide drivers to their destination. They tell the reader when to go, when to pause, when to stop, when to go again, when to pay close attention, and when to turn (Truss, 2003, p. 7). They’re also crucial for avoiding accidents. A paragraph without punctuation—no periods, commas, apostrophes, etc.—quickly spins out into utter nonsense and kills the reader’s understanding of the writer’s meaning.

Punctuation that’s merely missing or unnecessary here and there can confuse a reader and even lead to expensive lawsuits if they plague contentious documents like contracts. To anyone who knows how to use them, seeing punctuation mistakes in someone else’s writing makes that other person look sloppy and amateurish. Punctuation errors by adult native English speakers look especially bad because they reflect poorly on their education and attention to detail, especially if they’re habitual mistakes. The critical reader looks down on anyone who hasn’t figured out how to use their own language in their 20+ years of immersion in it. Not knowing the difference between a colon and semicolon, for instance, is like not knowing the difference between a cucumber and a zucchini; sure they look alike from a distance, but they’re completely different species and serve different culinary functions. If you don’t know these differences by the time you’re an adult, however, it doesn’t take much to learn.

In this section, we focus on how to spot and correct common punctuation errors, starting with commas because most problems with people’s writing in general are related to missing and misused commas. The goal is to help you avoid making mistakes that can potentially embarrass you in the eyes of people who should be taking you seriously.

Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.1: Commas

Most punctuation problems are comma-related because of the important role commas play in providing readers with guidance on how a sentence is organized and is to be read to understand the writer’s intended meaning. As we saw in §4.3.2, commas signal to the reader where one clause ends and another begins in compound and complex sentences, but they serve several other roles as well. We use commas in four general ways, each with several variations and special cases. To these we can add rules about where not to add commas, since many writers confuse their readers by putting commas where they shouldn’t go. Most style guides advocate for using as few commas as possible, though you certainly must use them wherever needed to avoid ambiguities that lead readers astray. Closely follow the sixteen rules below to guide your reader towards your intended meaning and avoid confusing them with comma misplacement.

Quick Rules: Commas

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common comma errors associated with each one.

Comma Rule 1.1 Put a comma before coordinating conjunctions in compound sentences.
The installers came to do their work at 8am, and the regulators came to inspect the installation by the end of the day.
Comma Rule 1.2 Don’t put a comma between independent clauses in a compound sentence if not followed by a coordinating conjunction.
Our main concern is patient safety; we don’t want any therapeutic intervention to cause harm. (semicolon rather than a comma after “safety”)
Comma Rule 2.1 Put a comma after introductory subordinate clauses, phrases, or words preceding main clauses.
If we can’t secure investor funding and launch the site by April, the clients will likely go elsewhere.
Comma Rule 2.2 Don’t put a comma after main clauses followed by subordinate clauses or phrases unless the latter strikes a contrast with the former.
They’re paying us a visit because they haven’t seen us in a while. (no comma before “because”)
Comma Rule 3.1 Put commas around parenthetical words, phrases, or clauses.
See my portfolio, which includes my best work, on ArtStation.
Comma Rule 3.2 Put a comma before contrasting coordinate elements, end-of-sentence shifts, and omitted repetitions.
He said, “go to Customer Service, not the checkout,” didn’t he?
Comma Rule 3.3 Put a comma before sentence-ending free-modifier phrases that describe elements at the beginning or middle of sentences.
We are putting in long hours on the report, writing frantically.
Comma Rule 3.4 Put commas around higher levels of organization in dates, places, addresses, names, and numbers.
Send your ticket to Gina Kew, RN, in Ottawa, Ontario, by Tuesday, October 9, 2018, for your chance to win the $5,000,000 prize.
Comma Rule 3.5 Put a comma between a signal phrase and a quotation.
The reporter replied, “Yes, this is strictly off the record.”
Comma Rule 3.6 Don’t put commas around restrictive relative clauses (before that).
The purchased item that we agreed to return is now completely lost. (no comma before “that” and after “return”)
Comma Rule 3.7 Don’t put commas between subjects and their predicates.
The just reward for the difficult and dangerous job that Kyle performed for his clientele was the knowledge that they were safe. (no comma before “was”)
Comma Rule 4.1 Put commas between each item in a series, including the last two items.
You must be kind, conscientious, and caring in this line of work.
Comma Rule 4.2 Put commas between two or more coordinate adjectives.
It was a cool, crisp, bright autumn morning.
Comma Rule 4.3 Don’t put a comma after the final coordinate adjective.
The team devised a daring, ambitious plan. (no comma after “ambitious”)
Comma Rule 4.4 Don’t put a comma between non-coordinate adjectives.
David played his Candy Apple Red ’57 reissue Fender Stratocaster electric guitar like he was flying a Saturn V rocket to the moon. (no comma between the non-coordinate adjectives throughout)
Comma Rule 4.5 Don’t put commas between two coordinate nouns or verbs.
Tesla and Edison invented and patented a complete circuit of electricity distribution systems and consumption devices. (no commas before any “and” here)

Extended Explanations

Comma Rule 1.1:    Put a comma before coordinating conjunctions in compound sentences.

Put a comma before the coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, but, so; Darling, 2014a) that joins two independent clauses in a compound sentence. A compound sentence contains two or more clauses that can stand on their own as sentences (see Table 4.3.2b for more on compounds sentences) with a different subject in each clause.

Correct:

We were having the time of our lives, and our lucky streak was far from over.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “and” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “We” and another beginning with the subject “our lucky streak.”

Correct:

The first round of layoffs was welcomed by all, but the second devastated morale.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “but” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “The first round” and another beginning with the subject “the second.”

Correct:

The management blamed external factors, yet none of the company’s blunders would have happened under good leadership.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “yet” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “The management” and another beginning with the subject “none.”

Correct:

You can take advantage of this golden opportunity, or a thousand other investors will take advantage of it instead as soon as they know about it.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “or” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “You” and another beginning with the subject “a thousand.”

Correct:

He didn’t see the necessity of lean principles, nor would they have made sense in a business model based on inefficiency.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “nor” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “He” and another beginning with the subject “they.”

Correct:

Market forces left them behind, for the law of supply and demand isn’t necessarily a force for social justice.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “for” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “Market forces” and another beginning with the subject “the law.”

Correct:

The competition started to heat up, so we did everything we could to protect our assets.

Why it’s correct: A comma precedes the coordinating conjunction “so” joining the independent clause beginning with the subject “The competition” and another beginning with the subject “we.”

Exception:

If the two independent clauses are short (five words or fewer), the comma may be unnecessary.

Correct:

You bring the wine and we’ll make dinner.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary before the coordinating conjunction “and” joining the two short, four-word independent clauses beginning with the subjects “You” and “we.”

How This Helps the Reader

The comma tells the reader to pause a little after one independent clause ends and before the coordinating conjunction signals that another (with a new subject) is joining it to make a compound sentence. In each of the examples sentences above, the independent clause on either side of the comma-conjunction combination could stand on its own as a sentence (see §4.3.1§4.3.2 for more on sentence structure and independent clauses). In the first example above, for instance, we could replace the comma and conjunction with a period, then capitalize the o in “our,” and both would be grammatically correct sentences. We combine them with a comma and the conjunction and, however, to clarify the relationship between the two ideas. The comma signals that these are coordinated clauses rather than noun or verb phrases.

If the subject were the same in both clauses, however, both the comma and subject of the second clause would be unnecessary. In that case, the sentence would just be a one-subject clause with a compound predicate—that is, two coordinated verbs (see Comma Rule 4.4 below). Consider the following examples:

Correct:

We were having the time of our lives and would continue to enjoy that lucky streak.

Why it’s correct: The subject “we” is the same in the independent clauses “We were having the time of our lives” and “we would continue to enjoy that lucky streak,” so the comma and second “we” are omitted to make a compound predicate joining the verbs “were having” and “would continue” with the coordinating conjunction “and.”

Correct:

They won the battle but lost the war.

Why it’s correct: The subject “They” is the same in the independent clauses “They won the battle” and “they lost the war,” so the comma and second “they” are omitted to make compound predicate joining the verbs “won” and “lost” with the coordinating conjunction “but.”

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for run-on sentences (see §5.2.1.2 above), which are sentences that omit a comma before the coordinating conjunction joining two independent clauses. Keep an eye out for the seven coordinating conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so (see Table 4.3.2a and use the mnemonic acronym fanboys to remember them). Simply add a comma before the conjunction if the independent clause on either side of the conjunction could stand on its own as a sentence because it has a subject and predicate (see §4.3.1 for more on sentence structure).

Incorrect:

We were losing money with each acquisition but our long-term plan was total market dominance.

Incorrect:

We were losing money with each acquisition but, our long-term plan was total market dominance.

The fix:

We were losing money with each acquisition, but our long-term plan was total market dominance.

In the example above, the coordinating conjunction “but” joins the two independent clauses beginning with the subjects “We” and “Our long-term plan.” Omitting the comma in the first example makes the sentence a run-on. Misplacing the comma after the conjunction in the second miscues the reader to pause after, rather than before, the conjunction. The easy fix is just to add the comma or move it so it goes before the conjunction.

Comma Rule 1.2: Don’t put a comma between independent clauses in a compound sentence if not followed by a coordinating conjunction.

Don’t put a comma between two independent clauses if it’s not followed by a coordinating conjunction because this is a comma splice sentence error (see §5.2.1.1 above). We have two distinct ways of forming a compound sentence (see §4.3.2 above) and a comma splice confuses the two. One way of making a compound sentence is to join independent clauses by placing a comma and one of the seven “fanboys” coordinating conjunctions between them (see Table 4.3.2a for the coordinating conjunctions). Simply omitting the coordinating conjunction after the comma makes a comma splice. The other way of making a compound sentence is to end the first clause with a semicolon when it doesn’t make sense to use any of the coordinating conjunctions to establish a certain relationship between the clauses (see Table §4.3.2b on sentence varieties for more on compound sentences and Semicolon Rule 1 below). Using a comma instead of a semicolon in such compound sentences makes a comma splice.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas separating two independent clauses (clauses that can stand on their own as sentences because they each have a subject and predicate) without any of the seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so) following the comma.

Incorrect:

The first proposal was from the Davidson group, the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

The fix:

The first proposal was from the Davidson group; the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

The fix:

The first proposal was from the Davidson group; but the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

The fix:

Though the first proposal was from the Davidson group, the second came from a company we hadn’t seen before.

In the incorrect example above, the comma separates two independent clauses that can stand on their own as sentences if you replaced the comma with a period and capitalized the t in “the second.” You have three options for fixing the comma splice corresponding to the three examples above:

  1. Replace the comma with a semicolon to make a compound sentence.
  2. Add a coordinating conjunction, such as but, to make a compound sentence that clarifies the relationship between the clauses.
  3. Add a subordinating conjunction, such as Though, at the beginning of the first clause to make it a dependent (a.k.a. a subordinate) clause. This makes the sentence a complex one (see §4.3.2 above for more on subordinating conjunctions and complex sentences).

Comma Rule 2.1:    Put a comma after introductory subordinate clauses, phrases, or words preceding main clauses.

Put a comma before the main clause (a.k.a. independent clause) when it is preceded by an introductory word, phrase (e.g., a prepositional or participial phrase), or subordinate clause (a.k.a. dependent clause) in a complex sentence.

Correct:

If we follow our project plan’s critical path down to the minute, we will finish on time and on budget.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the subordinate clause beginning with the subordinating conjunction “If” from the main clause (beginning with the subject “we”) that follows it.

Correct:

When my ship comes in, I’ll be repaying every favour anyone ever did for me.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “When,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “I.”

Correct:

To make ourselves better understood, we’ve left post-it notes all around the room.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory infinitive phrase, beginning with the infinitive verb “To make,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “we.”

Correct:

After the flood, the Poulins took out some expensive disaster insurance.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory prepositional phrase, beginning with the preposition “after,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “the Poulins.”

Correct:

Greeting me at the door, she said that I was a half hour early and would have to wait to see the director.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory participial phrase, beginning with the present participle (Simmons, 2001a) “Greeting,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “she.”

Correct:

The downturn of 2008 now forgotten, the investors threw other people’s money around like it was 2007 again.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory absolute phrase, ending with the past participle (Simmons, 2001a) “forgotten,” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “the investors.”

Correct:

Delighted, she accepted their offer even with the conditions.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the single-word introductory past-participle appositive (Simmons, 2001b) “Delighted” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “she.”

Correct:

Therefore, you are encouraged to submit your timesheet the Friday before payday.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory conjunctive adverb (Simmons, 2007b) “Therefore” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “you.”

Correct:

However, there’s not much we can do if the patient refuses our help.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the introductory conjunctive adverb “However” from the main clause that follows it, beginning with the subject “you.”

Correct:

Yes, please go ahead and submit your payment.

Why it’s correct: The comma separates the single-word introductory interjection “Yes” from the main clause imperative clause that follows it, the core of which is the verb “go.”

Correct:

Hello, Claude:

Why it’s correct: The comma marks the pause between the greeting word and name address in a respectful, semiformal salutation opening email.

Exception: The comma is unnecessary if the introductory dependent clause or prepositional phrase is short (fewer than four words) and its omission doesn’t cause confusion.

Correct:

At this point we’re not accepting any applications.

Why it’s correct: Omitting the comma after the short, three-word prepositional phrase doesn’t cause confusion.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma tells the reader to pause a little prior to the main clause as if to say, “Okay, here’s where the sentence really begins with the main-clause subject and predicate.” The main clause is the main point, whereas the subordinate clause that precedes it is relatively minor, providing context.

Recall from the lesson on sentence varieties (§4.3.2) that a complex sentence is one where a subordinating conjunction (Darling, 2014a) begins an independent or subordinate clause, which cannot stand on its own as a sentence. A subordinate clause (a.k.a. dependent clause) becomes part of a proper sentence only when it joins a main (a.k.a. independent) clause. When that subordinate clause precedes the main clause, a comma separates them. The same is true when that main clause is preceded by a phrase (e.g., prepositional, infinitive, participial, gerund, etc.; Darling, 2014b) or even just a word such as an appositive participle (as in the “Delighted” example above) or conjunctive adverb (Darling, 2014c), as in the “Therefore” example above.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for words, phrases, or clauses preceding the main clause without a comma separating them. For this, you must know how to spot the main clause when it comes later in the sentence; in other words, you need to be able to spot the main grammatical subject (the doer of the action) and predicate (the action itself; review §4.3.1’s introduction to sentence structure). If the main subject is preceded by words, phrases, or clauses but not a comma, then you need to add one before the main clause.

Incorrect:

Because first impressions are lasting ones you must always come out swinging at the beginning of your presentation.

The fix:

Because first impressions are lasting ones, you must always come out swinging at the beginning of your presentation.

In the example above, “you” is the main grammatical subject that begins the main clause, whose main verb is “come.” The subordinate clause begins with the subordinating conjunction “Because” and ends at “ones,” so the comma must follow “ones” to separate it from the beginning of the main clause.

Comma Rule 2.2:  Don’t put a comma after main clauses followed by subordinate clauses or phrases unless the latter strikes a contrast with the former.

Don’t put a comma after a main clause (a.k.a. independent clause) if it is followed by a subordinate (a.k.a. dependent) clause or phrase in a complex sentence. If the subordinate clause begins with a contrasting subordinating conjunction such as “although,” a comma must separate the two clauses.

Correct:

You can’t apply for permits from the city  because you haven’t even secured funding yet.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “because,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

We will finish on time and on budget if we follow the critical path of our plan to the minute.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “if,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

I’ll be repaying every favour anyone ever did for me when my ship comes in.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “when,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

The Poulins took out some expensive disaster insurance after the flood.

Why it’s correct: A comma is unnecessary because the prepositional phrase, beginning with the preposition “after,” follows the main clause rather than precedes it, so you can read it without a pause.

Correct:

We’re not accepting any applications at this time, though we might make an exception for a truly remarkable applicant.

Why it’s correct: A comma is necessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “though,” strikes a contrast with the main clause that precedes it, making a pause appropriate.

Correct:

We could easily hire a new full-time assistant in the fourth quarter, unless our profit margin drops below 5% in the third.

Why it’s correct: A comma is necessary because the subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction “unless,” strikes a contrast with the main clause that precedes it, making a pause appropriate.

How This Helps the Reader

The absence of the comma tells the reader to keep reading smoothly without pause between the main and subordinate clauses. In the case of the contrasting subordinate clause, however, the comma signals a pause as if to say that the subordinate clause is a kind of afterthought or qualification added to the main clause.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas unnecessarily added before subordinating conjunctions (see Table 4.3.2a for a list of subordinating conjunctions) in complex sentences where the subordinate clause follows the main clause and doesn’t strike a contrast with it.

Incorrect:

The technician is switching to plan B, because the manifold blew a gasket.

The fix:

The technician is switching to plan B because the manifold blew a gasket.

Incorrect:

The Goliath Games label was founded in 2003, to create the most innovative and progressive interactive entertainment.

The fix:

The Goliath Games label was founded in 2003 to create the most innovative and progressive interactive entertainment.

In the examples above, the comma is simply unnecessary and should be deleted. It would be necessary, however, if the first sentence began with the subordinate clause beginning with “Because . . . ” or after the infinitive phrase if the second sentence began with “To create . . . .” In those cases, the comma would follow “gasket” and “2003” respectively and you would change the first letter in the main clauses to lowercase.

Comma Rule 3.1: Put commas around parenthetical words, phrases, or clauses.

Put commas before and after parenthetical or non-essential words, phrases, or clauses that would leave the sentence grammatically correct if you omitted them. Placed in the middle of a sentence between the subject and predicate or at the end of the sentence, however, those elements lend further detail to the words or phrases that come just before them. Commas in this way function as a lighter form of parentheses (see §5.3.5 below).

Correct:

The promotion went to Mr. Speck, who neither wanted nor deserved it, to make it look like something was being done about the glass ceiling.

Why it’s correct: Like parentheses, the commas mark off the relative clause beginning with the relative pronoun “who” in the middle of the sentence, lending more information on the word coming just before (“Mr. Speck”).

Correct:

Global Solutions went on a hiring spree, which was well-timed given the change in telecoms legislation that was about to come down.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks the switch to a restrictive relative clause beginning with the relative pronoun “which” after the main clause, lending more information to its final word, “hiring spree.” The restrictive relative clause is non-essential in the sense that the main clause still means the same thing if the restrictive clause were omitted.

Correct:

We’ll get back to you as soon as possible, needless to say.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks the switch to an interjection tacked onto the end of the sentence.

Correct:

The second customer, on the other hand, absolutely loved the new colour.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off a parenthetical prepositional phrase separating the subject from the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

The time for expressing interest in the buy-out option, however, had long since passed.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the conjunctive adverb “however” interjected between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

We’ve heard that, in fact, the delegation won’t be coming after all.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical prepositional phrase interjected between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

Always treat the customer with respect, unless of course certain behaviours, such as belligerent drunkenness, compel you to take a firm stand against them.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical phrase offering an example interjected between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the dependent clause.

Correct:

The nicest thing about you, Josh, is that you get the best work out of your employees by only praising achievements rather than criticizing mistakes.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical appositive address clarifying who “you” is between the subject and the predicate in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

I sent the application to Grace Garrison, the departmental secretary, last Tuesday.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off a parenthetical appositive noun phrase identifying the role of the person named.

Exceptions: When the appositive is so close to the noun it modifies that the sentence wouldn’t make sense without it, omit the commas. Also omit commas:

  • Before such as when exemplifying non-parenthetically
  • Around restrictive relative clauses (i.e., those beginning with that; see Comma Rule 3.6)
  • If too many commas would clutter the sentence, in which case you would drop any comma that wouldn’t cause confusion if omitted

Correct:

Departmental secretary Grace Garrison received the application Tuesday.

Why it’s correct: You can omit commas around the appositive following “Departmental secretary” because “Departmental secretary received the application” wouldn’t make sense unless “The” preceded it.

Correct:

They offer competitive fringe benefits such as health and dental coverage, three weeks’ paid vacation per year, and sick leave.

Why it’s correct: A comma would be excessive before the “such as” phrase introducing the list of examples unless it appeared as a parenthetical aside in the middle of the sentence.

Correct:

We don’t have to go, and of course they don’t have to take us.

Why it’s correct: Adding commas around “of course,” though technically correct, would be excessive and look cluttered, so the parenthetical commas drop in priority to the comma separating compounded independent clauses.

How This Helps the Reader

As light alternatives to parentheses, these parenthetical commas tell the reader to pause a little when a non-essential (a.k.a. parenthetical) point is interjected or tacked on to explain the word or phrase preceding it. Common parenthetical phrases include:

all things considered
as a matter of fact
as a result
as a rule
at the same time
consequently
for example
furthermore
however
in addition
incidentally
in fact
in my opinion
in the first place
in the meantime
moreover
needless to say
nevertheless
no doubt
of course
on the contrary
on the other hand
therefore
under the circumstances

Interestingly, this rule also helped the Atlantic Canada telephone company Bell Aliant cancel a contract with Rogers Communications over the use of telephone poles prior to Rogers’s intended five-year term, costing Rogers a million dollars and resulting in a bitter court battle in 2006. The dispute concerned the following sentence in the middle of the 14-page contract:

This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.

Without the comma after “terms,” you could read the contract as Rogers intended, which was to say that it could be terminated with a year’s notice any time after the first five years. By adding the second comma to make the “and thereafter” phrase parenthetical and therefore non-essential, however, Rogers in effect made the “unless . . .” clause apply to the first five-year term as well as to any subsequent term. That one misplaced comma thus gave Bell Aliant the right to cancel at any time.

Citing this parenthetical comma rule, the Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled in favour of Bell Aliant at Rogers’s expense (Austen, 2006). The CRTC later reversed its ruling when Rogers invoked the less ambiguous French version of the contract to force Aliant to return to its contractual obligations. Still, Rogers ultimately paid heavily for un-recouped losses during the contract’s cancellation and in legal fees throughout the contract dispute, which dragged out till 2009 (Bowal & Layton, 2014). You can bet Rogers pays people to ensure its contracts are punctuated unambiguously now.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for words, phrases, or clauses that could be deleted from a sentence without making it grammatically incomplete. Add commas if none mark off the parenthetical word, phrase, or clause, or if the first is there but not the second (or vice versa) in the case of parenthetical elements ending a sentence.

Incorrect:

Emphasizing your spoken points with gesticulation which may sound like a dirty word can certainly help your audience understand them better.

The fix:

Emphasizing your spoken points with gesticulation, which may sound like a dirty word, can certainly help your audience understand them better.

Here, the non-essential parenthetical relative clause beginning with the non-restrictive relative pronoun which (see Table 4.4.2a, #7, for relative pronouns) and ending with “word,” could be deleted from the sentence and leave it grammatically complete. However, as an interjection, it clarifies the word that precedes it (“gesticulation”), and therefore has a place in the sentence, albeit one set apart from the rest.

Incorrect:

Let’s start cooking Grandpa!

The fix:

Let’s start cooking, Grandpa!

Here, the comma is crucial in signalling that Grandpa is being addressed. Without the comma, the sentence recommends preparing Grandpa to be cooked and presumably eaten, which is hopefully not the intended meaning.

Comma Rule 3.2: Put a comma before contrasting coordinate elements, end-of-sentence shifts, and omitted repetitions.

Put commas before end-of-sentence:

  • Questions that seek confirmation of the main-clause point by asking the opposite
  • Phrases that begin with not and state what the main-clause point seeks to correct
  • Coordinate elements that contrast or further extend the main-clause point

Correct:

This presentation seems like it’s gone on for days, doesn’t it?

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the question added to the end of the sentence to ask whether the opposite of the main-clause point is true as a way of seeking agreement with it.

Correct:

Please send the document to Accounts Receivable, not Payable.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the contrasting element added to the end, abbreviating the clause “do not send the document to Accounts Payable,” which has the exact structure of the main clause, but shows only the words that differ from the main-clause wording rather than repeating most of it to make a compound sentence.

Correct:

The potential we envision for AI is that it will at best bring a world of convenience and leisure, at worst total annihilation.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the clause that states the complementary contrast to the first statement by omitting the repeated relative clause root “it will . . . bring.”

Correct:

The president’s statement to the media seemed incoherent, even demented.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the clause that extends the main clause statement assuming the same root structure.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma cues the reader to pause before the sentence shifts to contrasting elements, as well as to indicate that some phrasing from the first part of the sentence is being assumed rather than repeated in the second.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for run-on-like gaps where no punctuation separates the main clause from questions or contrasting phrases tacked on to the end of a sentence, and add the comma.

Incorrect:

This is a great time to be alive isn’t it?

The fix:

This is a great time to be alive, isn’t it?

Here, the main clause ends with “alive,” and the follow-up recasting of the statement as an interrogative sentence (“isn’t this the best time to be alive?”) abbreviated as “isn’t it?” forms a run-on without any punctuation separating it from the main clause. The comma added between the clauses represents the words that were omitted to avoid repetition.

Comma Rule 3.3: Put a comma before sentence-ending free-modifier phrases that describe elements at the beginning or middle of sentences.

Put commas before phrases that appear at the end of a sentence but modify (describe) actions or things at the sentence’s beginning or middle. As long as such phrases don’t cause confusion with their ambiguity, they are free to either follow the noun they modify or appear at the end.

Correct:

The MC desperately cued for applause, clapping aggressively.

Why it’s correct: The comma marks off the sentence-ending participial phrase starting with the present participle “clapping” describes the action “cued” in the middle of the sentence.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma signals to the reader that the phrase ending the sentence refers to something that came earlier in the sentence. Without a comma, the phrase would describe what came immediately before it.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for phrases (especially participial phrases—words ending -ing) at the end of sentences without commas preceding them but not making sense. If they indeed have commas preceding them but the participle could refer to more than one thing in the main clause, resolve the ambiguity by moving the phrase closer to the thing it modifies.

Incorrect:

The bellhop held out his hand for a gratuity smiling obsequiously.

The fix:

The bellhop held out his hand for a gratuity, smiling obsequiously.

Here, the omitted comma makes it seem like the gratuity is smiling obsequiously, which doesn’t make sense. Adding the comma before “smiling” makes it clear that the bellhop mentioned earlier in the sentence is the one smiling.

Incorrect:

The MC invited the plenary speaker to the stage, bowing graciously.

The fix:

Bowing graciously, the MC invited the plenary speaker to the stage.

The participial phrase is ambiguous when placed at the end of the sentence because it’s unclear whether the MC or plenary speaker is bowing graciously. Moving the participial phrase to the beginning so that it is in appositive relation to the noun it modifies clarifies the sentence to say that the MC is bowing.

Comma Rule 3.4: Put commas around higher levels of organization in dates, places, addresses, names, and numbers.

Put commas around the:

  • Year when preceded by a month and date
  • Date when preceded by a day of the week
  • Larger geographical region (e.g., province, state, country, etc.) when preceded by smaller one (e.g., city or town) in a sentence or long address line
  • Title or credential (e.g., ND, MD, PhD) following a name
  • Groups of thousands in large numbers

Correct:

The release date of April 14, 2019, will be honoured if there are no delays.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the year as parenthetical in the three-part date to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which April 14 (2018? 2020?) is intended.

Correct:

We agreed to continue our meeting on Thursday, January 28, to cover the agenda items we didn’t get to on Monday.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the calendar date as parenthetical after the day of the week to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which Thursday is intended.

Correct:

Gord Downie was born in Amherstview, Ontario, to a traveling salesman father and stay-at-home mother.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the province as parenthetical after the smaller town to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which town is intended, assuming other towns in other provinces may share the same name.

Correct:

Bowie was born David Robert Jones in London, England, on 8 January 1947.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the country as parenthetical after the city within it to ensure that there is no ambiguity about which city is intended (i.e., not the one in Ontario, Canada).

Correct:

Send your inquiries to 1385 Woodroffe Avenue, Ottawa, ON  K26 1V8.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the larger geographical region in which the street is situated.

Correct:

Please welcome Daria Rimini, RN, to the department.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the person’s credentials as non-essential to her name rather than initials in her name.

Correct:

Send your inquiries to Albert Irwin, Jr., at the email address below.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the generational tag following the name.

Correct:

You can always trust old George Wilson, Professor of English, to make a mountain of a molehill.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off the individual’s professional title following their name.

Correct:

The awards for damages ranged anywhere from a token $4,882 to a whopping $13,945,718.

Why it’s correct: The commas mark off every group of thousand (three digits) to help the reader quickly recognize the magnitude of the number without counting the number of digits.

Exceptions:

Don’t surround a year with commas if it follows only a month; use them only around years following a month and date. Also, drop the second comma if the larger geographical region is possessive in form.

Correct:

Recording began in November 2005 and continued to February 2006.

Why it’s correct: Commas are unnecessary in general two-part dates.

Correct:

The charm of London, Ontario’s street buskers almost rivals that of its UK namesake.

Why it’s correct: A comma following the possessive form of the larger geographical region would look even more awkward than this. Of course, the sentence could be reworded as “The street buskers’ charm in London, Ontario, almost . . . .”

How This Helps the Reader

The commas tell the reader to pause a little within a detailed series of time, geographical, or name designations when adding a higher order of organization just as commas were used as light alternatives to parentheses in Comma Rule 3.1.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for years added to three-part dates, larger geographical regions added after cities and towns, or credentials added after names with either no comma added on either side of that year, region, or credential, or added only before it but not after. Add both or the second comma. If the date only has the month and year, but a comma or two surrounds the date, delete commas.

Incorrect:

We can probably fit you in for the procedure on Tuesday December 12.

The fix:

We can probably fit you in for the procedure on Tuesday, December 12.

Here, the month and date follow the day of the week without a comma. Just add one between them.

Incorrect:

They moved the release date to March 14, 2020 to allow enough time for post-production.

The fix:

They moved the release date to March 14, 2020, to allow enough time for post-production.

Here, the year gets the first of its two parenthetical commas but not the second, so just add one after the year.

Incorrect:

The company was founded in July, 1978, to address an urgent need.

The fix:

The company was founded in July 1978 to address an urgent need.

The commas around the year are unnecessary because it’s only a two-part date. Just delete them.

Comma Rule 3.5: Put a comma between a signal phrase and a quotation.

Put commas between signal phrases and the quotations they introduce when the signal phrases end with a verb that gives rise to the quoted words or thoughts.

Correct:

The chair of the meeting shouted, “We cannot proceed unless we have order.”

Why it’s correct: A comma separates the signal phrase ending with a verb from the quotation it introduces.

Correct:

“Stay the course,” the supervisor advised, “and you shall soon find success.”

Why it’s correct: The parenthetical commas mark off the signal phrase interjected between quoted clauses.

Correct:

You could tell she was thinking, “Is this guy for real?”

Why it’s correct: A comma separates the signal phrase ending with a verb from the quotation it introduces even if the quotation is merely thought rather than said.

Exception:

A comma is unnecessary if the signal phrase ends with the restrictive relative pronoun that or the quotation is a phrase incorporated into the sentence rather than a sentence or clause on its own.

Correct:

The customer service rep said that “The offer expired on August 23, not the 24th” and they have a “no exceptions” policy due to the perishable nature of the product.

Why it’s correct: The signal phrase ends with the restrictive relative pronoun that, which a comma doesn’t follow but could replace, and “no exceptions is a phrase rather than a clause or sentence.

Correct:

The customer service representative confirmed “August 23, not the 24” was the expiration date.

Why it’s correct: No comma follows the signal phrase because the quotation is just a phrase excerpt rather than a clause or sentence.

How This Helps the Reader

The comma cues the reader to pause as it abbreviates the relative pronoun that, which makes the comma unnecessary if it’s included.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for missing commas around quotations and add them between the signal phrase ending with a verb and the quotation, or look for unnecessary commas that split a sentence unnaturally, such as going before or after the that that precedes a quotation if present), and delete them.

Incorrect:

The authorization said “Go for it.”

The fix:

The authorization said, “Go for it.”

Here, the signal phrase omits a comma between the main verb and the quotation, so adding one corrects the error.

Incorrect:

The current contract says clearly that, “overtime is time and a half.”

The fix:

The current contract says clearly that “overtime is time and a half.”

Here, a comma unnecessarily follows the relative pronoun that perhaps because the writer thought that a comma should always precede the quotation. You could either delete the comma or “that,” but not both.

Comma Rule 3.6: Don’t put commas around restrictive relative clauses (before that).

Don’t put a comma before a restrictive relative clause (e.g., beginning with the relative pronoun who or that) following a main clause.

Correct:

The stocks that we all thought were going to offer the best returns are doing the worst.

Why it’s correct: No commas surround the restrictive clause from “that” to “returns,” which is somewhat parenthetical in that the sentence could grammatically function without it (“The stocks are doing the worst”). However, this would be misleading because it implies that all the stocks are failing expectations, whereas the sentence focuses on only a subset. The vagueness resulting from omitting the restrictive clause proves that it is essential to the sentence’s clarity.

Correct:

The students who presented first set the bar high for those who followed.

Why it’s correct: No commas surround the restrictive clause from “who” to “first.” The clause is restrictive because it specifies a small group of students. Adding commas around the clause would make it non-restrictive (see Comma Rule 3.1 above) and would change the meaning of the sentence: it would mean that all the students presented first.

Correct:

She didn’t say that we couldn’t work together.

Why it’s correct: No comma precedes the restrictive clause beginning with “that.”

How This Helps the Reader

The absence of the comma tells the reader that the relative clause starting with the relative pronoun that or who is essential to the meaning of the sentence and should be read smoothly without pauses around it. For more on restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, see Introduction and General Usage in Defining Clauses (Keck & Angeli, 2018) and Clauses (Darling, 2014d).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas preceding that or who and determine whether the meaning of the sentence would be significantly changed if you deleted the restrictive relative clause. If it would be, delete the commas.

Incorrect:

You don’t have to cite common-knowledge facts, that every source you can find agrees on.

The fix:

You don’t have to cite common-knowledge facts that every source you can find agrees on.

Here, the restrictive relative clause beginning with that is essential to the meaning because it clarifies what kind of facts are common knowledge. It is not interchangeable with the non-restrictive relative clause beginning with which, which requires a comma before it because it is non-essential (see Comma Rule 3.1 above). In the UK, writers often use “which” instead of “that” even in non-restrictive relative clauses without the comma preceding them. In North America, however, we distinguish the relative clause types by using a comma and which for non-restrictive clauses and that without a comma for restrictive clauses.

Incorrect:

The students, who were caught plagiarizing, were each given a zero, whereas the rest did quite well.

The fix:

The students who were caught plagiarizing were each given a zero, whereas the rest did quite well.

Here, the commas in the incorrect sentence say that all students were caught plagiarizing. Deleting the commas to make “who were caught plagiarizing” a restrictive relative clause brings the sentence back to the intended meaning, which is that a subset of students were caught plagiarizing and the rest did well.

Comma Rule 3.7: Don’t put commas between subjects and their predicates.

Don’t put a comma between a clause’s subject (even if it’s a long one) and predicate (the main verb action) if there are no parenthetical elements between them.

Correct:

Participants who quit smoking because of the new treatment option were twice as likely to remain smoke-free as those who quit cold turkey.

Why it’s correct: No comma separates the subject “Participants who . . . option” from the predicate “were . . . turkey” even though the subject is quite long at ten words.

Exception:

Adding a pair of commas between the subject and predicate is acceptable when they are divided by an interjection. See the fourth and fifth correct examples illustrating Comma Rule 3.1).

How This Helps the Reader

The absence of the comma tells the reader to read smoothly across the subject and predicate because they are the integral parts of a unified clause even if the subject is long.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas that separate the subject from the predicate when there are no parenthetical words or phrases, or non-restrictive clauses, separating them. For this, you must know how to spot the main-clause subject and predicate (review §4.3.1 on sentence structure) and delete any stray commas that come between them.

Incorrect:

All the businesses that benefitted from the new regulatory environment following the passing of Bill 134, have given back to their community.

The fix:

All the business that benefitted from the new regulatory environment following the passing of Bill 134 have given back to their community.

The subject of the above sentence is a long one because, following the core noun “businesses,” it contains a restrictive relative clause beginning with that, which contains prepositional phrases (“from the new . . .” and “of Bill 134”) and a participial phrase (“following . . .”). None of these length-extending units change the fact that there is no legitimate parenthetical interjection requiring commas between the subject and the predicate that begins with “have given.” The easy fix is just to delete the comma.

Comma Rule 4.1: Put commas between each item in a series, including the last two items.

Put commas between each item in a series, including before the and or or that separates the second-to-last (a.k.a. penultimate) and last items, whether those items be words, phrases, or even clauses in a series.

Correct:

NASA sent the space shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour on 135 orbital missions from 1982 to 2011.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each noun in a series up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two.

Correct:

I gave them the option of either researching the content, preparing the PowerPoint, or doing the actual presentation.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each participial phrase in a series up to the penultimate one before the or joining the last two.

Correct:

The presenters rehearsed before Week 5, during Reading Week, and again after Week 7.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each prepositional phrase in a series up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two.

Correct:

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards set the stage for other singer-guitarist power duos like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Freddie Mercury and Brian May, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Axl Rose and Slash, and Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante.

Why it’s correct: A comma follows each compound noun phrase in a series up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two pairs.

Correct:

I can’t stand comma splices, you have no patience for run-ons, and she won’t tolerate sentence fragments.

Why it’s correct: In a compound sentence containing three independent clauses, a comma follows each clause up to the penultimate one before the and joining the last two.

How This Helps the Reader

The serial commas help separate each item in the series, and the one that comes before the coordinating conjunction and that joins the last two items (a.k.a. the “Oxford comma”), helps resolve various ambiguities that may arise without it (see some below). The question of whether to use the Oxford comma has been a long-running debate. Some style guides, such as the Canadian Press, Associated Press, and even institutions like Algonquin College, recommend omitting it because they advocate for as few commas as possible. However, they say nothing about situations where omitting the Oxford comma creates unavoidable ambiguity—that is, two interpretations that mean two very different things. The anti-Oxford comma side even has an anthem in the Grammy-winning indie band Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut-album single “Oxford Comma,” which opens with the lyric “Who gives a f**k about the Oxford comma?”.

However, grammarians, readers, and writers who care about clarity in writing, and even the plaintiffs awarded $5 million in a US civil suit (as well as the defendants paying the price) certainly care about the Oxford comma. The significant confusion and even conflict that results from its absence in clutch situations justifies its inclusion in all. For instance:

  • In a 2017-2018 civil case that went nearly as far as the US Supreme Court, Oakhurst Dairy of Portland, Maine, was ordered to pay its delivery drivers $5 million due to the ambiguity caused by an omitted Oxford comma in state law. The law was soon amended to separate the last two items in a list of overtime pay exemptions to resolve the ambiguity (Victor, 2018).
  • The inclusion or omission of the Oxford comma leads to two entirely different interpretations when names are listed. If you were to say, for instance, that you and two others must go to court, you would say, “Beth, Ian, and I must go to court.” Without the Oxford comma, however, you would be addressing Beth (who now isn’t going to court) to tell her that just you and Ian are going: “Beth, Ian and I must go to court,” which is not what you originally meant.
  • Appositive relations between items in a series also create ambiguities when omitting the Oxford comma. If an actor winning a big award in front of a national audience were to say, “I would like to thank my parents, God and Buffy Sainte-Marie,” the absence of an Oxford comma makes “God and Buffy Sainte-Marie” appear to be an appositive noun phrase modifying “parents”—that is, she would imply that her parents are God and Buffy Sainte-Marie. By using the Oxford comma, she avoids this absurdity by thanking three entities: her parents, God, and Buffy Sainte-Marie—as intended.
  • Omitting the Oxford comma is especially confusing if the items listed are a combination of paired and single items. If the list of pairs in the fourth correct example above omitted the Oxford comma, it would end with the absurdity of having the last four items appearing as singles with “and” awkwardly separating each: “. . . Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Axl Rose and Slash and Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante.” Knowing the context of these pairings would help resolve the ambiguity, but if you were reading a list of unknown mixed single and paired items, you wouldn’t know which was a single and which was a pair near the end without the Oxford comma. A list such as “A, B and C, D, E and F, G, H, I, J and K and L” would be ambiguous because you wouldn’t know if the last three items paired J with K (and L is single) or K with L (and J is single).

If the Oxford comma is necessary to avoid ambiguity in such cases, it should be used as a rule in all cases. Writers shouldn’t have to make a subjective judgment call about whether the reader would find it ambiguous with or without the Oxford comma because some readers are more astute than others. Except perhaps in titles where brevity is highly valued and no ambiguities of the kind listed above can confuse the reader, the Oxford comma should always be used.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for list of three or more words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence. If you don’t see a comma before the and that separates the last two items, add one there.

Incorrect:

Our group is full of non-contributors, my friend and me.

The fix:

Our group is full of non-contributors, my friend, and me.

Omitting the Oxford comma in the incorrect example above suggests that you and your friend are non-contributors because “my friend and me” are in appositive relation to “non-contributors.” Though you did not mean to say this, you are in effect offering yourself and your friend as particular examples of non-contributors. By adding the Oxford comma, however, you now say that the group is comprised of you, your friend, and some non-contributors. With the Oxford comma, you and your friend are productive members rather than non-contributors despite being grouped with them.

Comma Rule 4.2: Put commas between two or more coordinate adjectives.

Put commas between two or more coordinate adjectives that refer to the same noun. Coordinate adjectives are those stacked in front of a noun in no particular order to describe the noun in multiple ways. You can tell that they’re coordinate adjectives if you can (1) change their order and (2) add and between each without changing the meaning either way.

Correct:

The new hires turned out to be dedicated, ambitious employees.

Why it’s correct: Both adjectives, “dedicated” and “ambitious,” describe the noun “employees” in no particular order, and you can replace the comma with an and to make “. . . dedicated and ambitious employees.”

Correct:

Would you like a nice, new, clean, dry diaper?

Why it’s correct: All four coordinate adjectives describe the noun “diaper” in no particular order.

Correct:

The incessant, thunderous drum beat changed the rhythm of their hearts.

Why it’s correct: The comma goes between “incessant” and “thunderous” because they are coordinate. The comma doesn’t go between “thunderous” and “drum” because they are non-coordinate in that you can’t change their order and add and between them without changing the meaning.

Correct:

Use SMS for brief, fast text message exchanges.

Why it’s correct: The comma goes between “brief” and “fast” because they are coordinate. The comma doesn’t go after “fast,” “text,” or “message” because they are non-coordinate in that you can’t change their order and add and between them without changing the meaning.

How This Helps the Reader

The commas distinguish coordinate from non-coordinate adjectives, and therefore what adjectives are incidental and which are intrinsic qualities of the noun they describe. For more, see Commas: Coordinate Adjectives (Write, 2012) and Comma Tip 6: Use Commas Correctly with a Series of Adjectives (Simmons, 2018a).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for a series of two or more adjectives preceding a noun without commas between them. If you can put and between them and change their order without changing the meaning of the sentence, they’re coordinate adjectives that need commas between them.

Incorrect:

The day started off with a vicious unrelenting freezing rain.

The fix:

The day started off with a vicious, unrelenting freezing rain.

The only adjectives that could be swapped around and have and added between them are “vicious” and “unrelenting.” The adjective “freezing” is locked in its position before the noun “rain” to mean the type of rain that makes the outside one huge ice rink. Therefore, you need to add a comma between “vicious” and “unrelenting,” but not between “unrelenting” and “freezing.”

Comma Rule 4.3: Don’t put a comma after the final coordinate adjective.

Don’t put a comma after the second of two (or third of three, etc.) coordinate adjectives—i.e., between the final coordinate adjective and the noun it describes. See Comma Rule 4.2 above for a further explanation of coordinate vs. non-coordinate adjectives.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for coordinate adjectives preceding a noun with commas between them. If you can put and between them and change their order without changing the meaning of the sentence, they’re coordinate adjectives that need commas between them.

Incorrect:

Select and use common, basic, information technology tools to support communication.

The fix:

Select and use common, basic information technology tools to support communication.

The only adjectives that could be swapped around and have and added between them are “common” and “basic.” In this case, “information technology” (a.k.a. “IT”) is a noun phrase that modifies the noun “tools,” so their order is locked in, making them non-coordinate.

Comma Rule 4.4: Don’t put a comma between non-coordinate adjectives.

Don’t put commas between non-coordinate adjectives—that is, between adjectives that are in a fixed order before the noun they modify and cannot have and added between them without changing the meaning of the sentence. See Comma Rule 4.2 above for a further explanation of coordinate vs. non-coordinate adjectives.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for coordinate adjectives preceding a noun with commas between them. If you can’t put and between them and change their order without changing the meaning of the sentence, they’re non-coordinate adjectives. Any commas between them must be deleted.

Incorrect:

Send the black, Pearl, drum kit to the heavy, metal drummer.

The fix:

Send the black Pearl drum kit to the heavy metal drummer.

The order is important in the first set of non-coordinate adjectives describing the noun “kit” because the type of kit we’re dealing with is a drum kit, so “drum” must come immediately before “kit.” The brand of drum kit is Pearl (capitalized because it is a proper noun), so “Pearl” precedes “drum kit.” The only adjective preceding these non-coordinate adjectives is “black,” but it is unaccompanied by another to make it a coordinate adjective, so there are no commas. Likewise, inserting a comma between “heavy” and “metal” splits the musical genre “heavy metal” serving as a non-coordinate adjective to “drummer,” so it misleadingly implies that the drummer is a 400kg led statue.

Comma Rule 4.5:    Don’t put commas between two coordinate nouns or verbs.

Don’t put commas between two nouns (or noun phrases) or verbs (or verb phrases) joined by the coordinating conjunction and in a compound subject, predicate, or object.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for commas appearing before or after the coordinating conjunction and when it comes between nouns (or noun phrases) or verbs (or verb phrases), then delete them.

Incorrect:

The communications director from your company, and the same from our company met to discuss a common strategy.

The Fix:

The communications director from your company, and the same from our company met to discuss a common strategy.

This above sentence features a compound subject, meaning that two subjects (the two communications directors) perform the main action (“met”). Though each is followed by a prepositional phrase (“from . . .”), the comma between them must be deleted in the incorrect sentence to avoid impeding the reader.

Incorrect:

They applied for an extension, and worked all weekend on the report.

The fix:

They applied for an extension and worked all weekend on the report.

The sentence above has a compound predicate, meaning that the one subject (“They”) performed two actions (“applied” and “worked”). Again, the comma is unnecessary between them and must be deleted from the incorrect sentence. The comma would be necessary if the second verb had a different subject performing the action, in which case they would be two independent clauses in a compound sentence (see Table 4.3.2b and Comma Rule 1.1).

Incorrect:

They can’t expect us to write both the report and memo, and not pay us.

The fix:

They can’t expect us to write both the report and memo but not pay us.

The above sentence also has a compound predicate (“can’t expect” and “not pay”). Adding a comma makes this out to be a compound sentence, which it isn’t because the subject “They” is common to both actions. To avoid an “X and Y and Z” structure caused by having a compound object (“report and memo”) appearing just before the conjunction coordinating the second verb, the “and” joining the two verb phrases can simply be changed to “but.”

Incorrect:

The teacher gave us a new deadline based on the revised schedule, and a slightly revised end-of-semester timeline.

The fix:

The teacher gave us a new deadline based on the revised schedule and a slightly revised end-of-semester timeline.

The above sentences have a compound object, meaning that two objects (“deadline” and “timeline”) are acted upon by the verb “gave.” The objects here are in somewhat long noun phrases, but to add a comma between them (after ”schedule”) would mislead the reader into thinking that this is a compound sentence with a new independent clause following “and.” Deleting the comma would ensure that the reader understands the sentence instead as a simple sentence with a compound object.

Return to Quick Rules: Commas

For more on commas, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.2: Apostrophes

Apostrophes are mainly used to indicate possession and contraction but are probably the most misplaced punctuation mark after commas. They can embarrass the writer who misuses them, show a lack of attention to detail, and confuse readers about whether a noun is singular or plural, possessive, a contraction, or just a misspelling. Used properly, apostrophes at the end of a noun cue readers that the noun following is possessed by what the noun preceding refers to. For instance, in “Uncle Tom’s cabin,” the apostrophe indicates that the cabin (noun) is owned by Uncle Tom. Placement of apostrophes before or after the s ending a word determines if the noun is plural or singular. They’re also used for contractions in informal writing such as you see at the beginning of this sentence. You have four main rules to follow when using apostrophes, as well as several special cases.

Quick Rules: Apostrophes

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common apostrophe errors associated with each one.

Apostrophe Rule 1.1 Put an apostrophe before the s ending a singular possessive noun.

Jenna’s goal is to find a money manager who can diversify her portfolio.

Apostrophe Rule 1.2 Don’t put an apostrophe at the end of a simple plural noun.

Corben put on his glasses to see the looks on their faces. (no apostrophe at the end of “glasses,” “looks,” or “faces”).

Apostrophe Rule 2.1 Put an apostrophe after the s ending a plural possessive noun.

All three companies’ bids for the contract were rejected.

Apostrophe Rule 2.2 Don’t put an apostrophe before the s ending a non-possessive plural decade.

The corporation was in the black back in the 1940s. (no apostrophe between the 0 and s in “1940s”)

Apostrophe Rule 3 Put an apostrophe where letters are omitted in contractions.

You’re saying that it’s not a mistake if they’re doing it twice?

Apostrophe Rule 4 Put an apostrophe before a plural s following single letters

Mind your p’s and q’s, son.

Extended Explanations

Apostrophe Rule 1.1:    Put an apostrophe before the s ending a singular possessive noun.

Put an apostrophe before the s added to the end of a singular noun when the noun or noun phrase following belongs to the noun preceding it. In the case of joint ownership in compound nouns (when two or more nouns have joint possession of the noun following), the apostrophe-s goes only at the end of the second or final noun.

Correct:

Have you heard the story of Albert Einstein’s brain?

Why it’s correct: The brain belongs to Einstein (singular), so the apostrophe and s indicate possession.

Correct:

Grace Jones’s formidable presence in 1985’s A View to a Kill electrified audiences.

Why it’s correct: The “formidable presence” belongs to Grace Jones. Though her name ends with an s, she is grammatically singular and therefore receives an apostrophe and s just like any other singular noun. The apostrophe and s are also added to the end of years to indicate that the noun following (in this case a James Bond film) occurred in that year.

Correct:

I’ve always heeded my brother-in-law’s financial advice.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe and s are added to the end of a compound noun.

Correct:

Reznor and Ross’s first soundtrack won a 2010 Oscar for Best Original Score.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe and s are added to the end of the final noun in cases of joint possession. Saying “Reznor’s and Ross’s first soundtrack” would refer to solo soundtracks by each.

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe before the s signals to the reader that the preceding singular noun is in possession of the noun or noun phrase following. To test whether you are dealing with a case of possession, you can flip the order and insert “of the” between the nouns or noun phrases. In the first example above where the brain belongs to Einstein, for instance, “the brain of Einstein” is a wordier equivalent of “Einstein’s brain” but confirms possession.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for s added to the end of words when your intention is to show possession, but you’ve omitted the apostrophe, making the word look like a simple plural. Add the apostrophe. Also, in cases where an apostrophe is added to the very end of a singular noun that ends in s to show possession (see the second correct example above), add another s rather than imply that the singular noun is plural.

Incorrect:

Mr. Davis’ companies proposals request is for a 33% funding increase.

The fix:

Mr. Davis’s company’s proposal’s request is for a 33% funding increase.

The incorrect sentence above contains three apostrophe errors:

  • The company belongs to Mr. Davis, who is just one person and is therefore grammatically singular despite having a name ending in s. Perhaps the writer heard that you can’t have an “s’s” due to pronunciation concerns, but usually we pronounce this Day-viss-ez to indicate possession. Thrown by this and confusing the singular and plural possessive forms, the writer who omits the s and may cause the same confusion can avoid doing so by adding it.
  • The proposal belongs to the company, but the apostrophe is omitted and the plural form of company (“companies”) is given instead of “company’s.” The error is likely due to the fact that the plural noun and singular possessive noun forms are homophones—they sound exactly alike but are spelled differently and mean different things (see homophone.com for several examples of such homophones). Correcting this is a simple matter of replacing “ies” with “y’s” at the end of the word.
  • Finally, the request is in the proposal and thus belongs to it. Omitting the apostrophe makes the plural noun “proposals,” and fixing it is just a matter of adding the apostrophe before the final s.

 

Apostrophe Rule 2.1:    Put an apostrophe after the s ending a plural possessive noun.

Put an apostrophe after the s at the end of a plural noun (a noun of two or more people, places, or things) when the noun or noun phrase following belongs to it.

Correct:

The two companies’ merger was finalized last month.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe goes at the end of the plural noun “companies” to indicate that the noun following (“merger”) belonged to both.

Correct:

The Joneses’ family tradition includes rescuing ancient artifacts from dastardly villains.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe is added to the end of “Joneses,” the plural of the surname “Jones,” meaning each individual Jones family member is in joint possession of the noun phrase following (“family tradition”).

Correct:

I listed having had three years’ experience in C++ coding on my résumé.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe comes at the end of the plural “years” to indicate that the noun following happened in those years. This is a more concise alternative to saying “three years of experience.”

Exception:

When the plural form of the noun is irregular in that it doesn’t end in s (e.g., “feet,” “children,” “men,” “mice,” “teeth”), use the singular possessive apostrophe-s.

Correct:

Can you please point me to the men’s room?

Why it’s correct: The singular possessive apostrophe-s form is added to the end of an irregular plural noun that doesn’t end in s to indicate possession.

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe after the s tells the reader to read the noun as being a plural in possession of the noun or noun phrase following, as opposed to the apostrophe before the s signalling a singular possessive.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for plural words that end in s being in possession of the noun following without an apostrophe at the end, or the apostrophe added before the s. Either add the apostrophe to the end of the word or move the it there.

Incorrect:

We’ve been granted two months grace.

Incorrect:

We’ve been granted two month’s grace.

The fix:

We’ve been granted two months’ grace.

Here, the grace period belongs to the two months (plural), so omitting the apostrophe is incorrect because it leaves “months” as a simple plural. The apostrophe-s ending is also incorrect because it makes “month” singular, which disagrees with the “two” preceding. To correct these errors, the apostrophe must go after the s at the end of “months.”

Apostrophe Rule 2.2:    Don’t put an apostrophe before the s ending a non-possessive plural decade

Don’t put an apostrophe between the 0 and s when writing a plural decade that’s not possessive (e.g., 1990s). Put an apostrophe at the end only if the decade is in possession of the noun or noun phrase following.

Correct:

The 1980s’ main contribution to popular music was excessive cheesy synthesizers.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe follows the plural decade, (meaning everything that happened from January 1, 1981, to December 31st, 1990) to show possession of the noun phrase “main contribution.” You could also say, “The main contribution of the 1980s to popular music was . . . .”

Correct:

1980’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to Ordinary People.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe precedes the s to mean that the event following happened in the year 1980.

How This Helps the Reader:

The apostrophe after the s signals to the reader that the noun or noun phrase following happened in the decade given. Some mistakenly put an apostrophe between the 0 and s when referring to the simple plural of a decade (e.g., 1990’s), but this conflicts with the singular possessive form of the year (see the “1980’s” example above). If the decade were also possessive, “1990’s’” (with two apostrophes—one before and one after the s) would look awkward. The non-possessive apostrophe between the 0 and s is probably confusing the rule that places the contraction apostrophe before the last two digits of the year or decade (see the third example in Apostrophe Rule 3 below).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for an apostrophe-s added to the end of a decade and delete the apostrophe if the decade (or year at the beginning of the decade) isn’t in possession of the following noun or noun phrase.

Incorrect:

The 1990’s were a colourful decade in men’s fashion.

The fix:

The 1990s were a colourful decade in men’s fashion.

The ’90s were a colourful decade in men’s fashion.

In the incorrect sentence above, “1990’s” is the singular possessive form of “1990,” meaning something belonging to the year 1990 should follow it rather than a verb. Perhaps the writer confused “1990’s” with the contraction “ ’90s.” The apostrophe before the s must be deleted to make the simple plural “1990s,” meaning all the years from 1991 to 2000 inclusive.

Apostrophe Rule 3:    Put an apostrophe where letters are omitted in contractions.

Put an apostrophe wherever letters and characters (including spaces) have been omitted in contractions. Contractions are two (sometimes more) words combined into one word to represent the way they’re often said quickly as one word in informal speech. In the examples below, the contractions would be incorrect if formal writing were expected by the audience but are correct as informal writing.

Correct:

There’s going to be a huge reckoning when markets adjust, and it won’t be pretty.

Why it’s correct: The first apostrophes replace the omitted i in “There is” and the second for the o in “will not”)

Correct:

I woudn’t’ve have said that if I knew you were sensitive about your nose.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes replace the omitted o and a in the three-word phrase “would not have” contracted into one word.

Correct:

She’s been bangin’ out hit records since the ’70s.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes replace the omitted space and ha in “She has,” final g in “banging,” and 19 in “1970s.”

Correct:

It’s a pretty bad cold, sure, but ’sbeen a while and ’tis the season, as they say.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes replace the omitted space and i in the contraction for “It is,” it ha in “it has been,” and first i in “it is.”

Exceptions: Many contractions at the far end of informality typically omit even contractions.

Correct:

I’m gonna get me a cold beer when this shift’s over.

Why it’s correct: The first apostrophe replaces the omitted space and a in “I am,” and the second replaces the space and i in “shift is.” As a convention in the writing of gonna as a contraction of “going to,” apostrophes aren’t used to replace the omitted i, g, t, and o.

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe replaces omitted letters in contractions and thus signals informal writing meant to represent the way we speak words informally, though they would be unacceptable in formal writing. Some common contractions that often confuse readers because they are homophones with other words include:

Table 5.3.2: Commonly Confused or Misspelled Contractions
Contraction Meaning Not Meaning
can’t cannot cant slang
could’ve could have could of (“of” confused with “have”)
I’d I would Id agent of instinct to Freud
I’m I am Im Cockney for “him”
it’s it is its possessive pronoun
I’ve I have Ive (misspelled)
let’s let us lets a form of the verb to let
o’clock of the clock oclock (misspelled)
should’ve should have should of (“of” confused with “have”)
there’s there is / was theirs possessive pronoun
they’re they are there / their pronoun / possessive pron.
we’re we are / were were a form of the verb to be
where’s where is / was wears a form of the verb to wear
who’s who is / was whose possessive pronoun
who’re who are / were whore prostitute
would’ve would have would of (“of” confused with “have”)
you’re you are / were your possessive pronoun

For a more exhaustive set, see the List of English contractions (Wikipedia, 2018).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for the absence of apostrophes in contractions and add them. Your spellchecker will help catch these in most cases (see Figure 5.1.4.8 above), but you must be especially careful in seeking them out if your spellchecker has any difficulty. Ensure also that you always use the form of apostrophe that looks like a small superscript “9,” not “6” (the opening of single quotation marks; see Quotation Marks Rule 2) especially when placed at the beginning of words or numbers.

Incorrect:

Its not like there gone to kick us out if im late and your hammered.

The fix:

It’s not like they’re gonna kick me out if I’m late and you’re hammered.

The many errors in the incorrect sentence can be corrected in the following ways:

  • It’s (for “it is”) is meant rather than the third-person possessive pronoun Its
  • they’re (for “they are”) is meant rather than the pronoun there
  • gonna (for “going to”) is meant rather than “gone to,”
  • I’m (for “I am”) is meant rather than “im”
  • you’re is meant rather than the possessive pronoun “your”
Incorrect:

I cant imagine life without ‘70’s rock ‘n roll.

The fix:

I can’t imagine life without ’70s rock n’ roll.

The errors in the incorrect sentence can be corrected in the following ways:

  • can’t (for “cannot”) is meant rather than cant, meaning “slang.”
  • ’70s (for 1970s with the apostrophe like a superscript “9”) is meant rather than the opening single-quotation mark (like a superscript “6”); the trick to getting the correct direction of apostrophe is to type any letter first, then the apostrophe to orient it in the form appearing as a small superscript “9,” and then go back to delete the letter in front of it
  • n’ (for “and”) is meant rather than the opening single-quotation mark (like a superscript “6”) appearing before the n; an apostrophe replacing the a, in addition to the one for d, is seen as excessive

 

Apostrophe Rule 4:    Put an apostrophe before a plural s following single letters.

Put an apostrophe wherever adding an s to make a simple plural would be confusing, such as pluralizing a single letter.

Correct:

As my mom always said, “Mind your p’s and q’s, dot your i’s, and cross your t’s.”

Why it’s correct: The apostrophes help form the plurals of the lowercase letters when they would otherwise look confusing as “ps” and “qs,” or ambiguous as “is.”

Correct:

I’m aiming for straight A’s this semester.

Why it’s correct: The apostrophe helps form the plural of the uppercase letters when it would otherwise look ambiguous as “As.”

How This Helps the Reader

The apostrophe helps the reader see these as plural forms of letters rather than as misspellings or typos.

What to Look for When Proofreading

In the rare case of using a plural form of a letter, separate the letter and its s with an apostrophe if you have omitted it.

Incorrect:

You need to practice rolling your rs if you want to nail the Italian accent.

The fix:

You need to practice rolling your r’s if you want to nail the Italian accent.

In the example above, omitting the apostrophe makes the plural of the letter r appear as a typo.

Return to Quick Rules: Apostrophes

For more on apostrophes, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.3: Colons

Colon and semicolonColons and semicolons are often confused because of the similarities in both their names and form, though they perform quite different punctuation roles. A colon looks like a period stacked on top of another and is mainly used to equate information on either side of it somewhat like an equals sign (=) in math. A semicolon, on the other hand, looks like a period stacked on top of a comma. The semicolon usually separates independent clauses from one another in a compound sentence as an alternative to using a comma and a conjunction. They both have additional specific uses as we shall see below, starting with the colon.

 

Quick Rules: Colons

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common colon errors associated with each one.

Colon Rule 1.1 Put a colon at the end of a clause or phrase introducing a list.
NASA built six space shuttles: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.
Colon Rule 1.2 Put a colon at the end of an opening salutation in formal emails and letters.
Dear Ms. O’Reilly:
Colon Rule 2.1 Put a colon between an explanation and its introductory independent clause.
The error in our prototype led to the solution of quite another problem: how to stabilize the transducer.
Colon Rule 2.2 Put a colon between a quotation and its introductory independent clause if the latter is a complete sentence.
What they were actually saying was much simpler: “Either give us the money up front, or we won’t install the program.”
Colon Rule 2.3 Don’t put a colon before a list or explanation preceded by a fragment.
Their three best albums are Fully Completely, Day for Night, and Trouble at the Henhouse. (no colon after “are”)
Colon Rule 3.1 Put a colon between a main title and its subtitle.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
Colon Rule 3.2 Put a colon between publisher locations and names in bibliographical references.
Toronto: Nelson
Colon Rule 3.3 Put a colon between numbers in ratios and times.
There’s a 3:1 chance that the experiment will end before the 8:23:40 mark.

Extended Explanations

Colon Rule 1.1:    Put a colon at the end of a clause or phrase introducing a list.

Put colon after a clause or phrase that introduces a list formatted either as a series separated by commas in the sentence or a bulleted or numbered stack down the page.

Correct:

We’re going to need some branded stationery: business cards for all associates, letterhead and memo templates, post-it notes, pens, and USB sticks.

Why it’s correct: The colon ends an independent clause (complete with a subject and predicate) that introduces a list arranged within the sentence.

Correct:

To find the date of a webpage that doesn’t otherwise have one:

 

  1. Type “inurl:” into the Google Search field, then copy and paste the URL of the webpage whose date you’re looking for immediately after it
  2. Hit Enter and add “&as_qdr=y15” to the end of the search result URL in the address bar above the results page, which should show the title of the webpage whose date you’re looking for, but without the date yet
  3. Hit Enter again and you’ll see the date appear in grey font below the webpage title in the updated results list

Why it’s correct: The colon ends an infinitive phrase that, as a dependent clause, is completed by each imperative sentence in the numbered list of procedural steps arranged down the page.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the information following as a list of items in parallel delivering on the promise made in the clause or phrase preceding it.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for lists either in sentence form with each item separated by a comma or in the form of a numbered or bulleted list. If no colons separate the introductory clauses or phrases from the lists that follow, add them. If semicolons or commas introduce the lists (see Semicolon Rule 3 below), replace them with colons.

Incorrect:

Four obstacles infuriate me on my rush to class through the hallways; inattentive people texting while walking, slow walkers, people who stop suddenly as if there’s no one behind them, and 4-5 people walking side-by-side, taking up the whole hallway.

The fix:

Four obstacles infuriate me on my rush to class through the hallways: inattentive people texting while walking, slow walkers, people who stop suddenly as if there’s no one behind them, and 4-5 people walking side-by-side, taking up the whole hallway.

In the example above, the writer made the common mistake of confusing a semicolon for a colon. Fixing it is a simple matter of replacing one with the other. See the example correct sentence for Colon Rule 2.1 below for a handy mnemonic for getting the right punctuation in these cases.

Colon Rule 1.2:    Put a colon at the end of an opening salutation in formal emails and letters.

Put a colon at the end of the opening salutation line where you address the recipient by name at the opening of a formal email or letter. In a semiformal email, a comma at the end of the salutation is fine. If an email is formal, however, a comma follows the greeting word (e.g., Hello) and the colon follows the recipient’s name.

Correct:

Greetings, Greta:

Why it’s correct: The colon following the semiformal email’s opening salutation cues the recipient (Greta) to read the message following it.

Correct:

Dear Mrs. Jackson:

Why it’s correct: The colon following the formal letter’s opening salutation cues the recipient (Mrs. Jackson) to read the message following it.

Exception: In an informal message, a comma following the recipient’s name (but not the greeting word) strikes a more casual tone in the opening salutation.

Correct:

Hi Hank,

Why it’s correct: The comma following the informal message’s opening salutation cues the recipient (Hank) to read the message following it.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the message following the salutation that addresses them by name.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for either no punctuation used at the end of an opening salutation address or other punctuation inappropriate for the occasion, such as a comma in a letter’s salutation, or incorrect, such as a semicolon.

Incorrect:

Dear Mr. Bobrovsky,

Incorrect:

Dear Mr. Bobrovsky;

The fix:

Dear Mr. Bobrovsky:

In the first incorrect example, a comma used at the end of an opening salutation addressing the reader in a letter is too informal for the given channel. This suggests to the professional reader that the writer isn’t up to date on business letter writing conventions. Modern business writers use a colon instead of a comma. Worse, the semicolon suggests that the writer is confused about the respective roles of colons and semicolons despite having had ample opportunity to learn them throughout their Enlgish-speaking lives.

Colon Rule 2.1:    Put a colon between an explanation and its introductory independent clause.

Put colon after an independent clause followed by a statement that explains in further detail what the introductory clause states in general. An independent clause is one that can stand on its own as a sentence beginning with a capital and ending with a period because it expresses a complete thought with a subject (doer) and a predicate (action; see §4.3.1 above). This colon usually stands for the causal transition phrase “—that is, . . . .”

Correct:

Imagining the colon elongating into an equals sign (=) is a useful way to remember what it does: equate information on either side of it.

Why it’s correct: The independent clause ends with a colon and the verb phrase following explains what “does” means. Since the material to the right of the colon is a verb phrase rather than a complete sentence, the e in “equate” remains lowercase.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the phrase or clause to the right of the colon as an explanation of what the clause to the left of it says.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for combination statement-explanation sentence structures with either no punctuation between them or the wrong punctuation such as a semicolon, comma, or long dash (em dash).

Incorrect:

You have only one option left—delete the corrupted file from your hard drive and download the last version you saved to the cloud.

The fix:

You have only one option left: delete the corrupted file from your hard drive and download the last version you saved to the cloud.

In the incorrect sentence above, the writer made the common mistake of using the long dash as multipurpose punctuation for any pause you hear in speech. Fixing the sentence is a simple matter of replacing the long dash with a colon. You could alternatively add “that is, ” between the long dash and “delete,” but the colon makes for a more concise sentence with two fewer words.

Colon Rule 2.2:    Put a colon between a quotation and its introductory independent clause if the latter is a complete sentence.

Put a colon after an independent clause that introduces a quotation. Like the clause followed by an explanation in Colon Rule 2.1 above, it must be a complete clause that can stand on its own before the colon and quotation.

Correct:

The first joke he told was a groaner of the highest order: “What did the fish say when you put him in his tank? . . . ‘Hey, how do you drive this thing?’”

Why it’s correct: The quotation is introduced by an independent clause that ends with a colon, whereas a signal phrase that ends with a verb such as “said” is followed by a comma.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon cues the reader to read the quotation to the right of the colon.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for quotations preceded by a complete independent clause. If they don’t have a colon separating them from the quotation, add one. Also, look for colons used to set up quotations when a comma is more appropriate, such as if the last word before the quotation is a verb, which would make the clause preceding the colon incomplete. In such cases, you would either replace the colon with a comma or rephrase the introductory fragment to make it an independent clause.

Incorrect:

Mama called the doctor and the doctor said: “No more monkeys jumping on the bed.”

The fix:

Mama called the doctor and the doctor said, “No more monkeys jumping on the bed.”

The fix:

Mama called the doctor and the doctor gave her an ultimatum: “Look, if another one of your children falls off the bed and gets a concussion, I’ll be reporting you to the Children’s Aid Society.”

In the example above, the clause preceding the colon and quotation is a compound with a fragmentary second clause missing an object after the transitive verb “said,” whereas it would have to be a complete independent clause to use a colon. Correcting it would be a simple matter of replacing the colon with a comma (see Comma Rule 3.5 above). Alternatively, you could make the introductory clause a complete and independent one, meaning it could stand on its own as a sentence, then use a colon before the quotation.

Colon Rule 2.3:    Don’t put a colon before an explanation or quotation preceded by a fragment.

Don’t put a colon before an explanation or list if the clause that precedes it is not an independent one—that is, if it cannot stand on its own as a sentence.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for colons ending phrases or incomplete clauses with lists or explanatory statements following, and simply delete them or rephrase the incomplete clause as a complete one. The incorrect sentence at the end of Colon Rule 2.2 above exemplifies an incomplete clause preceding a quotation; below is one preceding a list:

Incorrect:

The remaining tasks include: picking up the birthday cake, putting up the streamers, and wrapping the presents.

The fix:

The remaining tasks include picking up the birthday cake, putting up the streamers, and wrapping the presents.

The fix:

The following tasks remain: picking up the birthday cake, putting up the streamers, and wrapping the presents.

In the example above, the colon ends an incomplete clause—incomplete because it has a subject and only half of the predicate. The verb “include” is transitive, which means that an object (a thing acted upon by the verb) must follow it (Simmons, 2007a). The objects here are gerunds, which are verbs in noun form ending in -ing (Simmons, 2018b) and are all on the other side of the colon, so the colon can just be deleted. Alternatively, the incomplete clause can be completed by changing the subject to “The following tasks” to set up the list and changing the verb to the intransitive “remain”—intransitive because it doesn’t take an object (Simmons, 2008).

Colon Rule 3.1:    Put a colon between a main title and its subtitle.

Correct:

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.

Why it’s correct: The colon separates main title from subtitle.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon distinguishes what should be known as the main title of the book, film, report, assignment, etc. Often this is a catchy, snappy handle for what to call it. The subtitle usually provides a little more practical information about what the work is about (see §4.6.1 above for more on titles).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for titles that have any punctuation other than colons between main titles and subtitles. Often the cover of a book positions the subtitle below the main title and in a smaller font, in which case a colon must be added when transcribing the title into a document.

Incorrect:

Amusing Ourselves to Death / Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

The fix:

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

In the example above, the absence of punctuation separating the main title from the subtitle on the cover may have prompted the writer to make one up by using a slash. The convention for representing main titles and subtitles, however, is to separate them with a colon.

Colon Rule 3.2:    Put a colon between publisher locations and names in bibliographical references.

Put a colon between the location and company name of a publisher in APA References.

Correct:

Toronto: ECW.

Why it’s correct: The colon separates location and publisher.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon is merely a convention for separating the publisher location and name. Readers like to know if the book is published in the major centres like New York or London, or if they’re more local like Toronto or Vancouver.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for the part in bibliographical references of books where the publisher information is given. If any punctuation other than a colon separates them, replace it with a colon.

Incorrect:

New York, Random House.

The fix:

New York: Random House.

In the example above, the comma is non-standard punctuation separating the city where the book publisher is based and the name of the publisher. It must be replaced with a colon.

Colon Rule 3.3:    Put a colon between numbers in ratios and times.

Put a colon between numbers in mathematical ratios and to separate hours, minutes, and seconds when indicating time.

Correct:

A globe scaled 1:50,220,000 (or 790 miles to the inch) is one you can grip in the palm of your hand.

Why it’s correct: The ratio colon indicates the relative size difference between the model (given as 1 here) and the real thing, which in this case is over fifty million times bigger than the model.

Correct:

Clocking in at 3:24:56, that film was three hours, twenty-four minutes, and fifty-six seconds too long.

Why it’s correct: The colons divide units of time into hours, minutes, and seconds. After seconds, decimal-periods are used for fractions of seconds.

How This Helps the Reader

The colon expresses mathematical relationships and the division of units between numbers in a space-efficient manner.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for ratios and times to ensure that a colon is being used and that there are no spaces between it and the numbers on either side.

Incorrect:

My first marathon time was 3: 22: 15 and my second was a slower 3.26.44.

The fix:

My first marathon time was 3:22:15 and my second was a slower 3:26:44.

In the example above, errors in spacing and using non-standard punctuation are easily corrected by deleting spaces between the numbers and colons in the first time written and using colons instead of periods in the second.

For more on colons, see the following resources:

 

5.3.4: Semicolons

semicolon and colonSemicolons and colons are often confused because of the similarities in both their names and form, though they perform quite different punctuation roles. A semicolon looks like a period stacked on top of a comma and is mainly used to separate independent clauses from one another in a compound sentence as an alternative to using a comma and a conjunction. A colon, on the other hand, looks like a period stacked atop another and is mainly used to equate information on either side of it somewhat like an equals sign (=) in math. They both have additional specific uses as we saw above with colons in §5.3.3 above and will now see with semicolons.

Quick Rules: Semicolons

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common semicolon errors associated with each one.

Semicolon Rule 1 Put a semicolon between related independent clauses to make a compound sentence.

Yes, we finished the marketing report you asked for; it’s printed and bound in your departmental mailbox.

Semicolon Rule 2 Put a semicolon between sub-lists in a series of lists in a sentence.

Italicize words, phrases, and clauses for emphasis or when you refer to them as such; the titles of books, albums, feature-length films, and websites; and ships, named aircraft, and other named vehicles.

Semicolon Rule 3 Don’t put a semicolon where a colon should be used.

We can be thankful for what Oscar taught us: that being kind to our canine companions brings immense joy to our lives. (colon used after “us” to set up an explanation, not a semicolon)

Extended Explanations

Semicolon Rule 1:    Put a semicolon between related independent clauses to make a compound sentence.

Put a semicolon between independent clauses whose content is so closely related that it makes sense to keep them in the same sentence, though they have different grammatical subjects (doers of the action). An independent clause is one that can stand on its own as a complete sentence because it has a subject (doer) and predicate (action) (see §4.3.1). A compound sentence joins two independent clauses either with a comma and coordinating conjunction (and, but, so, etc.; see Table 4.3.2a) or with a semicolon. Doing neither would make a run-on sentence, and using only a comma between the clauses would make a comma splice. Use a semicolon in compound sentences where none of the seven coordinating conjunctions is appropriate to use or where you need to be as concise as possible and can do without the conjunction without sacrificing clarity.

Correct:

The new website is nearly ready to launch; we just need to set some SEO controls and publish it.

Why it’s correct: The semicolon joins the independent clause beginning with the subject “The new website” and the other with the subject “we.” Both could stand on their own as sentences but are closely related enough to be in the same sentence.

How This Helps the Reader

The semicolon helps the reader see where one clause ends and another (with a different grammatical subject) begins. It also signals that these are two closely related ideas worth joining in the same sentence.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for compound sentences punctuated with anything other than a semicolon (e.g., a comma, which makes a comma splice; see §5.2.1.1) or with no punctuation at all between them (run-on sentences; see §5.2.1.2). For this you really must know sentence structure well enough to spot the grammatical subject of a main (a.k.a. independent) clause so that you can tell if a second subject begins a new independent clause within a sentence but without the necessary punctuation preceding it. Review §4.3.1 above on sentence structure if you need a refresher.

Incorrect:

We would like to see less personal cellphone use from employees during working hours, however you can of course use your cellphone in an emergency.

The fix:

We would like to see less personal cellphone use from employees during working hours; however, you can of course use your cellphone in an emergency.

The incorrect sentence above is a comma splice because it uses only a comma to separate two independent clauses (see Comma Rule 1.2). The error is easier to spot if you imagine deleting the conjunctive adverb however. Replacing the comma with a semicolon and adding a comma after the conjunctive adverb easily fixes the problem.

Incorrect:

You can put the meeting in the calendar make it so we get a notification the day before.

The fix:

You can put the meeting in the calendar; make it so we get a notification the day before.

The incorrect sentence above is a run-on sentence because it contains two independent clauses without any punctuation between them. Adding a semicolon quickly makes the sentence a properly punctuated compound sentence.

Semicolon Rule 2:    Put a semicolon between sub-lists in a series of lists in a sentence.

Use semicolons as a “super comma” between groups of items in a long list of items arranged in a sentence.

Correct:

Please send T4s to Brenda, Albert, and Joan in Accounting; Jeremy, Lorraine, and Drew in Marketing; and Jasmine, Lily, and Alphonso in Legal.

Why it’s correct: The semicolon acts as a “super comma” that separates three sub-lists of three employees each according to their respective department in an office.

How This Helps the Reader

The semicolon helps the reader see subgroups within a long list that would be confusing if it included ands between the two last items in each subgroup throughout.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for sentences that contain long lists and see if there are internal groupings that can be separated with semicolons rather than commas.

Incorrect:

She was a kind mother, sister, and daughter, a dedicated public servant, business owner, and campaigner for progressive issues, as well as a kind soul with an insatiable curiosity, brilliant mind, and a big heart.

The fix:

She was a kind mother, sister, and daughter; a dedicated public servant, business owner, and campaigner for progressive issues; as well as a kind soul with an insatiable curiosity, brilliant mind, and a big heart.

In the incorrect example above, the long list of items is internally organized into groups of family and professional roles, as well as personal qualities. To help the reader follow these divisions as they switch from one group to another, the semicolon acts as a “super comma.”

Semicolon Rule 3:    Don’t put a semicolon where a colon should be used.

Don’t use semicolons as if they were interchangeable with colons. They are different punctuation marks performing different functions. Review the semicolon rules above and compare with §5.3.3 on uses for colons.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look for semicolons and determine if they are being used appropriately in the manner described in the rules above, or if they are actually performing the functions of colons explained and exemplified in §5.3.3 above. You can jump straight to every instance of a semicolon throughout your document by performing a word search (ctrl. + f) and just typing in a semicolon (;).

Incorrect:

Please send notifications to the following people; your family, friends, employer(s), legal representative(s), and financial planner(s).

The fix:

Please send notifications to the following people: your family, friends, employer(s), legal representative(s), and financial planner(s).

In the incorrect example above, the semicolon is being used to introduce a list of items, which is the function of a colon (see Colon Rule 1). Simply replacing the semicolon with a colon corrects the error.

For more on colons, see the following resources:

 

5.3.5: Parentheses

parentheses and bracketsParentheses are often confused with brackets because they look alike and perform similar functions. Parentheses are curved lines that surround qualifying, non-essential elements, whereas brackets are squared, open-ended boxes used for very specific parenthetical situations. Let’s take a closer look at the occasions for which we would use parentheses rather than brackets or even commas.

Quick Rules: Parentheses

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common parentheses errors associated with each one.

Parentheses Rule 1.1 Put parentheses around qualifying interjections of lesser importance within and between sentences.

He put the folder (the green one, not the blue) in the filing cabinet thinking it was a client file rather than an administrative one.

Parentheses Rule 1.2 Don’t use parentheses where parenthetical commas would do.

He put the green folder, not the blue one, in the filing cabinet. (commas used instead of parentheses)

Parentheses Rule 2 Put parentheses around in-text citations crediting research sources in APA and MLA documentation styles.

Cellphones are giving youths neck and back problems typically seen in much older people (Cuéllar & Lanman, 2017).

Extended Explanations

Parentheses Rule 1.1:    Put parentheses around qualifying interjections of lesser importance within and between sentences.

Use parentheses around interjections within a sentence where using parenthetical commas would lead to confusion. You can also use parentheses around an entire sentence that offers an aside that helps explain something said in the sentence previous. Parentheses always come in pairs: an opening parenthesis signals the beginning of an interjection of lesser importance, and a closing parenthesis signals the return to the sentence proper. When used around an entire sentence, the closing parenthesis goes after the sentence-ending period; otherwise, it goes before.

Correct:

We called pest control to get our office back from the vermin (silverfish, mites, house flies, fruit flies, and spiders) that seem to have taken up residency this past year.

Why it’s correct: The parentheses mark off a list that digresses from the main point of the sentence with a series of illustrative examples. Parentheses are a better alternative to parenthetical commas because they would confuse the reader with two different types of commas: parenthetical and series.

Correct:

I’ve come around in my opinion of the common house centipede. (I used to squash them at first sight.) It turns out that they’re effective pest control agents themselves.

Why it’s correct: The parentheses mark off a whole sentence as a slightly digressive aside interrupting the flow of the main point.

How This Helps the Reader

The parentheses guide the reader towards reading the words, phrases, and clauses surrounded by them as being of lesser importance but still offering insight into what comes immediately before them.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that the parentheses you use genuinely set off words, phrases, or clauses that help explain those that came before them, and that the parentheses both open and close. If you use parentheses around a whole sentence, ensure that the closing parenthesis goes to the right of the period rather than to the left.

Incorrect:

I know house centipedes, scutigera coleoptrata, are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

Incorrect:

I know house centipedes (scutigera coleoptrata, are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The fix:

I know house centipedes (scutigera coleoptrata) are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The incorrect example above uses parenthetical commas to set off the Latin name of the insect referred to in the first clause, then uses a Rule 1.1 comma to crowd the area with commas. Parentheses would be more appropriate here, as well as in the second incorrect example that omits the closing parenthesis. The second sentence also places the parenthetical element at the end of the clause rather than where it should be: immediately after the common name of the insect it explains.

Incorrect:

The next time you see a house centipede stuck in your bathtub, throw it a lifeline. (Don’t try to pick it up; they’re extremely fragile and fall apart at the slightest touch). Just rest one end of a metre stick on the edge of the tub and put the other end inside so the little guy can use it as a ramp to climb up and out.

The fix:

The next time you see a house centipede stuck in your bathtub, throw it a lifeline. (Don’t try to pick it up; they’re extremely fragile and fall apart at the slightest touch.) Just rest one end of a metre stick on the edge of the tub and put the other end inside so the little guy can use it as a ramp to climb up and out.

The incorrect sentence places the closing parenthesis to the left of the period ending the parenthetical sentence; if the parenthetical sentence were deleted along with the parentheses, the period would be stranded between sentences. Correcting this involves simply moving the period so it goes to the left of the closing parenthesis.

Parentheses Rule 1.2:    Don’t use parentheses where parenthetical commas would do.

Don’t overuse parentheses, especially where parenthetical commas would be more appropriate. Recall that, according to Comma Rule 3.1, commas can surround parenthetical, non-essential words, phrases, and clauses added to explain immediately what came before. Whether you use commas or parentheses, the sentence must make grammatical sense without the interjected element. The problem with overusing parentheses, however, is that it clutters up your writing with distracting asides, so the less conspicuous comma is preferable in situations where a parenthetical element doesn’t need full parentheses.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that the parentheses you use can’t be replaced with commas without causing confusion. In other words, if the parenthetical element follows Comma Rule 3.1 and doesn’t involve other types of commas covered by the other rules, then use commas instead of parentheses.

Incorrect:

At the same time, the market dropped a few thousand points (which wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t stay down for so long), so no one was buying anything.

The fix:

At the same time, the market dropped a few thousand points, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t stay down for so long, so no one was buying anything.

The incorrect example above includes a restrictive relative clause beginning with which, which is a perfect example of a non-essential parenthetical clause that we saw being set off from the main clause in Comma Rule 3.1 above. In this case, commas would be better to use than parentheses.

Parentheses Rule 2:    Put parentheses around in-text citations crediting research sources in APA and MLA documentation styles.

Correct:

Others argue that “text neck” is neither a true epidemic nor even a true ailment (Skwarecki, 2018), just as “book neck” was never a condition that concerned anyone.

Why it’s correct: The parentheses mark off an APA-style in-text citation.

How This Helps the Reader

The parentheses tell the reader that the quotation, paraphrase, or summary came from the author or authors named within the parentheses. The reader can then consult the References section at the end of the document and easily find the full bibliographical reference for that source by searching out the same author last name in the alphabetical list of source authors. When citing multiple works by the same author, the year of publication in the citation allows the reader to distinguish between them (see §3.5.2§3.5.3 above for more on citations and references).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that you use parentheses rather than brackets if your documentation style is APA or MLA. IEEE, on the other hand, does use brackets, albeit with a numerical citation rather than author and year.

Incorrect:

Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books [Shoshany, 2015].

The fix:

“Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books (Shoshany, 2015).

The incorrect sentence above uses brackets rather than parentheses to mark off an in-text citation. Use parentheses for APA or MLA in-text citations.

For more on parentheses, see the following resources:

 

5.3.6: Brackets

brackets and parenthesesBrackets are often confused with parentheses because they look alike and perform similar functions. Brackets are squared open-ended boxes used for more specific parenthetical situations than their curved-line counterparts. Let’s take a closer look at the occasions for which we would use brackets rather than parentheses.

 

Quick Rules: Brackets

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common bracket errors associated with each one.

Brackets Rule 1.1 Put brackets around changes or additions to the wording of quotations.

He clearly wrote that “The contract [was] for $1.2 million [CDN] over five years” back in 2012.

Brackets Rule 1.2 Don’t put brackets around what should have parentheses.

There’s no law of physics (at least not technically) that keeps top athletes from running the 100m in under 9 seconds. (parentheses appropriate instead of brackets)

Brackets Rule 2 Put brackets around parenthetical elements within parentheses.

We didn’t have a clue what was causing the issue (we scoured the troubleshooting manual [Brulé, 2012]), so they shut it down.

Brackets Rule 3 Put brackets around numerical in-text citations crediting research sources when required to use IEEE style.

Cellphones are giving youth neck and back problems typically seen in much older people [1].

Extended Explanations

Brackets Rule 1.1:    Put brackets around changes or additions to the wording of quotations.

Correct:

The president tweeted that “All of the phony T.V. commercials against [him were] bought and payed [sic] for by SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS.”

Why it’s correct: The first brackets change the original “me are” to “him were” to be consistent with the third-person orientation and past-tense verb in the signal phrase. The bracketed “[sic]” indicates that the quotation’s spelling mistake was in the original source and intentionally kept rather than introduced by the writer when repeating the quotation.

How This Helps the Reader

The brackets indicate what changes the writer makes to a quotation, whether to lend clarity to the original wording or to make it grammatically consistent with the sentence around it. Doing so shows a concern for both quoting accurately and writing correctly. Sneaking in some changes to a quotation to suit your purposes is called misquoting. Sometimes the additions draw attention to errors in the original, such as corrections to the spelling or the use of “[sic],” short for the Latin sic erat scriptum (“thus was it written”), to preserve the author’s error.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Ensure that quotations are exact transcriptions of the original to avoid misquoting. If you find any intentional changes, surround them with brackets. Ensure also that any errors in the original quotation are preserved but identified with “[sic]” immediately following.

Incorrect:

Apple’s 1997 slogan encourages you to “Think different” by using their computers for outside-the-box solutions.

The fix:

Apple’s 1997 slogan encourages you to “Think different [sic]” by using their computers for outside-the-box solutions.

The fix:

Apple’s 1997 slogan encourages you to “Think different[ly]” by using their computers for outside-the-box solutions.

The incorrect example above contains a quotation that is grammatically incorrect in its original form. Adding “[sic]” ensures the reader that the critical writer is well aware that, with “think” being a verb, “different” would have to be the adverb “differently” to be correct. Adding the -ly ending in brackets takes a more corrective approach to the error.

Brackets Rule 1.2:    Don’t put brackets around what should have parentheses.

What to Look for When Proofreading

Ensure that the brackets you use don’t follow either of the parentheses rules explained in §5.3.5 above.

Incorrect:

I know house centipedes [scutigera coleoptrata] are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The fix:

I know house centipedes (scutigera coleoptrata) are ugly, but I’m sure you would much rather have them in your home than the vermin they feed on.

The incorrect example above mistakenly uses brackets around the parenthetical Latin name of the insect identified just before by its common name. Following Parentheses Rule 1.1, however, you would just replace the brackets with parentheses.

Brackets Rule 2:    Put brackets around parenthetical elements within parentheses.

Use brackets whenever you have parenthetical elements within a phrase or clause that is already surrounded by parentheses.

Correct:

Though “text neck” is controversial (some argue that it was only ever a chiropractors’ marketing gimmick [Skwarecki, 2018]), it makes sense that neck strain sustained for several hours daily harms our musculoskeletal health.

Why it’s correct: The brackets mark off an in-text citation within a parenthetical statement. If not within parentheses, the citation would be framed by parentheses instead of brackets.

How This Helps the Reader

Brackets help the reader keep track of nested parenthetical elements. Switching to brackets for parenthetical elements within parentheses also helps avoid the awkwardness of “double-chin” parentheses such as “)).”

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that you don’t double up parentheses with “))” anywhere in your document.

Incorrect:

The snake-oil rhetoric of Dr. Fishman’s website undermines the credibility of his “text neck” concept (with a chronic lack of proper citations for research supporting his claims (Fishman, 2018)).

The fix:

The snake-oil rhetoric of Dr. Fishman’s website undermines the credibility of his “text neck” concept (with a chronic lack of proper citations for research supporting his claims [Fishman, 2018]).

In the incorrect sentence above, parentheses are used within parentheses. Simply replace the inner parentheses with brackets.

Brackets Rule 3:    Put brackets around IEEE-style numerical in-text citations crediting research sources.

Correct:

Physiopedia recommends holding up your mobile device so that it’s level with your eyes and avoiding “prolonged static postures” [4].

Why it’s correct: The brackets mark off an IEEE-style numerical in-text citation.

How This Helps the Reader

The brackets tell the reader that the quotation, paraphrase, or summary came from the research source numbered within the brackets. The reader can then consult the References section at the back and easily find the full bibliographical reference for that source by the corresponding number (see §3.5.4 above for more on IEEE-style citations and references).

What to Look for When Proofreading

Look to make sure that you use brackets rather than parentheses if your documentation style is IEEE, as opposed to APA or MLA, which use parentheses.

Incorrect:

Shoshany argues that “Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books (5).

The fix:

Shoshany argues that “Text neck” results from people straining their necks hunched over cellphones for several more hours per day, and thousands more per year, than they would if they were just reading books [5].

In the incorrect example above, parentheses are used rather than brackets to mark off an in-text citation. The correct in-text citation style for IEEE is to use brackets instead.

For more on brackets, see the following resources:

 

5.3.7: Quotation Marks

Double quotation marks and single quotation marksQuotation marks are mostly used to set reported speech or text apart from the author’s words. They essentially say, “These are someone else’s words, not mine.” But some writers confuse double quotation marks (simply called “quotation marks” here) with single quotation marks, as well as misplace punctuation around quotation marks, so let’s focus on when and how to use quotation marks, as well as single quotation marks, properly. Since the absence of quotation marks when using research sources in your document can result in plagiarism (see §3.4.1 and §3.5.1 above), knowing how to use them correctly is vitally important to your success as a student and professional.

Quick Rules: Quotation Marks

Click on the rules below to see further explanations, examples, advice on what to look for when proofreading, and demonstrations of how to correct common quotation mark errors associated with each one.

Quotation Marks Rule 1.1 Use quotation marks to indicate reported speech or text.

She said, “Put the G-8320 form on the shared drive,” not in your personal Dropbox, “so that it’s available to all the associates.”

Quotation Marks Rule 1.2 Use quotation marks in pairs to begin and end a quotation.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.3 Use a comma between a verb (or verb phrase) introducing a quotation and the quotation itself.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.4 Capitalize the first letter in a quotation unless it’s only a fragment of one.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.5 Place periods and commas before the closing quotation mark, not after.
Quotation Marks Rule 1.6 Place colons and semicolons after the closing quotation mark, not before.

Like the main character in the 1998 Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, “the dude abides”; in other words, I’ll be compliant.

Quotation Marks Rule 1.7 Place question and exclamation marks before the closing quotation mark if they’re part of the quotation and after if they’re part of the sentence framing the quotation.

I thought you were kidding when you asked, “How can I help?”!

Quotation Marks Rule 1.8 Quote exactly what’s between quotation marks; otherwise, use brackets to indicate changes made to words and ellipses for omissions.

Prime Minister Trudeau insisted that “Bilingualism [was] not an imposition on the citizens. . . . [It was] an imposition on the state” (Problems of Journalism, 1966).

Quotation Marks Rule 1.9 Don’t use quotation marks around a paraphrase (a.k.a. indirect quotation).

Prime Minister Trudeau insisted that the people were forcing two official languages on the country rather than the other way around. (no quotation marks around the indirectly quoted speech)

Quotation Marks Rule 2 Use quotation marks as “scare quotes” to draw attention to the way a word or phrase is used by others.

You can’t simply “phone this one in” because too many people will be depending on you doing this right.

Quotation Marks Rule 3 Use single quotation marks only for reported speech within a quotation.

The interviewer then asked, “What did you mean when you said, in 1997, ‘The great thing about the hockey world is that there are a lot of people with loose lips’?” (Fitz-Gerald, 2015).

Quotation Marks Rule 4 Use quotation marks around the title of a short work within a larger work such as an article in a magazine or journal, webpage in a website, chapter in a book, song on an album, short film or TV episode in a series, etc.

The article “Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Raised Their Kids Tech-free—and It Should Have Been a Red Flag” (Weller, 2018) made me reflect on my own technology addiction.

For more on quotations, see §3.4.1 above and the following resources:

5.3.8: Hyphens

Using hyphens between two or more words in combination helps the reader treat them as if they were one word when the words around them would create ambiguity without the hyphen(s). We do this especially with compound modifiers, which are two or more adjectives that modify the same noun in combination. For instance, if you said that there was funding available for small business owners, does that mean funding is only available for people who are under five feet tall? (In that case, “business owners” is read as a compound noun and “small” is the adjective modifying it.) If you mean that funding is available for business owners who employ fewer than 15 people, then you want to use the compound-modifier hyphen to pair up “small” and “business” so that they are read as if they were one adjective modifying the noun “owners”: small-business owners. Hyphens help the reader by guiding them toward what words to pair up when it could go either way.

The same is true of hyphens used in compound nouns. Saying, “It was a light year” means something completely different from “It was a light-year.” In the first case, you’re saying that nothing much happened that year; in the second, you’re saying that something spanned nearly ten trillion kilometres. Hyphens matter!

5.3.8.1: Compound-modifier Hyphens

The most common use of hyphens is for compound modifiers—that is, two or more adjectives that must be read in combination before a noun they describe. In fact, the hyphen you see between “compound” and “modifier” in the sentence above exemplifies how this works: since both of those words together (and in that order only) modify the noun “hyphen” (“modify” meaning that they tell you what kind of hyphen it is), the hyphen helps the reader identify which words functions as modifiers and which as nouns, since “modifier” in this case behaves as an adjective rather than a noun. Without the hyphen, the reader might make the mistake of taking “modifier hyphen” as a compound noun, as in the case of “small business owners” above.

If you were to say that the USSR was the first second world country to de-communize, the combination “first second” would surely trip up the reader. But pairing “second” and “world” with a hyphen resolves the ambiguity to say “The USSR was the first second-world country to de-communize.”

Table 5.3.8.1a: Common First-term Nouns in Compound Modifiers

Noun Examples Not Following a Noun
bottom-
or
top-
bottom-feeding fish
top-shelf liquor
top-tier player
Those fish are bottom feeding.
All your liquor is top-shelf.
The players we churn out are all top-tier.
high-
or
low-
high-calibre bullet
low-cost solution
high-fidelity sound
low-life criminal
high-quality products
low-resolution screen
Most of the bullets found were high calibre.
Let’s find a solution that’s low-cost.
I want a sound that’s more high fidelity.
He is a total low-life.
We ship products that are mostly high quality.
Don’t use pictures with low resolution.
self- self-driven woman
self-inflicted wound
self-motivated boy
self-taught pilot
She is very self-driven.
We don’t treat wounds that are self-inflicted.
He is not self-motivated enough.
I am totally self-taught.
well- well-known solution
well-thought-out plan
well-trained army
well-written letter
The solution is very well known.
My plan is very well thought out.
We’re no match for an army so well trained.
Only send the letter if it is well written.

Table 5.3.8.1b: Common Adverbs in Compound Modifiers

Noun Examples Not Following a Noun
fast-
or
slow-
Fast-moving process
Slow-motion replay
The process is fast-moving after that.
Let’s review the goal in slow motion.
well- well-chosen words
well-known solution
well-thought-out plan
well-trained army
well-written letter
Your words were all well-chosen.
The solution is very well known.
My plan is very well thought out.
We’re no match for an army so well trained.
Only send the letter if it is well written.

Exception: Don’t add hyphens after adverbs ending in -ly.

Table 5.3.8.1c: Common Prefixes Making Compound Modifiers

Prefix Examples Not Following a Noun
all- all-inclusive resort
all-powerful tech giant
all-out offensive
Let’s just go to an all-inclusive.
Google’s dominance has made it all-powerful.
We sent everyone so our offensive was all-out.

Table 5.3.8.1d: Common Middle-term Prepositions in Three-part Compound Modifiers

Preposition Examples Without a Noun Following
-at- Stay-at-home mom You work and I’ll just stay at home.
-by- case-by-case basis
six-by-six rule
We’re just taking it case by case.
Follow the rule called “six by six”
-for- word-for-word translation Don’t copy word for word.
-of- Cost-of-living index
Out-of-province funding
The cost of living is always rising.
The funding came from out of province.
-on- one-on-one game Let’s play one on one.
-to- Back-to-back classes
business-to-business retailer
coast-to-coast flight
easy-to-follow presentation
up-to-date calendar
My two classes today are back to back.
Our sales are B2B (business to business).
I’m flying coast to coast tonight.
Your presentation was very easy to follow.
My calendar is all up to date.

Table 5.3.8.1e: Common Three-part Compound-modifier Phrases

Examples Without a Noun Following
Long-drawn-out affair The affairs would all be long drawn out.
Off-the-charts happiness I wish you happiness that is totally off the charts.
On-the-job training All of the training will be done on the job.

Table 5.3.8.1f: Common Foreign-phrase Compound Modifiers

Examples Without a Noun Following
Avant-garde filmmaker His latest film is more avant garde.
Laissez-faire capitalism Our approach is fairly laissez faire.

Don’t hyphenate more recently imported foreign phrases that are still italicized.

Table 5.3.8.1g: Common End-term Nouns in Compound Modifiers

Noun Examples Without a Noun Following
-class first-class cabin
second-class citizen
economy-class seating
I’m going first class.
They treated me like I was second class.
We bought economy class.
-degree first-degree burns I had burns in only the first degree.
-interest Special-interest groups All of those groups are special interest.
-ready Game-ready athlete
Job-ready graduate
All of our kids are game-ready.
My training makes me fully job-ready.
-scale Large-scale project I’ve never done a project this large scale.
-time full-time job
half-time show
part-time employment
She works full time.
Let’s talk about it at half time.
We work part time on weekends.

Table 5.3.8.1h: Common Past-participles Following Nouns

Past Participle Examples Not Following the Noun
-based evidence-based treatment
faith-based reasoning
The treatment is evidence-based.
The programming is all faith-based.
-bodied Able-bodied teenager You’re able-bodied enough.
-capped Snow-capped mountains The mountains are nicely snow-capped.
-edged double-edged sword That sword is doubled edged.
-eyed cross-eyed goofball She went cross-eyed after a mule kick.
-faced Two-faced charlatan That guy is so two-faced.
-filled garbage-filled bins Those bins are all garbage filled.
-focused solution-focused apology The apology was solution focused.
-footed Fleet-footed deliverer The delivery man is fleet-footed.
-handed Left-handed writer
Right-handed stick
Short-handed goal
We want a writer who is left handed.
Pass me a stick that’s right handed.
The goal was short-handed.
-oriented audience-oriented writing
client-oriented response
The writing is more audience-oriented.
Make it more client-oriented.
-sided many-sided issue
eight-sided dice
The issue is many sided.
This dice is eight-sided.
-willed Strong-willed daughter My daughter sure is strong-willed.

Table 5.3.8.1i: Common End-term Present-participle and Gerund Compound-modifier Adjectives

Present Participle Examples Not Following the Noun
-bearing child-bearing hips
load-bearing walls
These hips are child-bearing.
Don’t remove walls that are load bearing.
-ending never-ending happiness I hope your happiness is never ending.
-jerking Tear-jerking performance The performance was tear-jerking.
-making decision-making process I’m good at decision making.
-sharing profit-sharing plan Profit sharing is a strong incentive.
-solving problem-solving skills My best skill is problem solving.
-sounding Odd-sounding name Their names are all odd sounding.
-speaking English-speaking world
French-speaking politician
Those areas are English-speaking.
-talking Smooth-talking sales rep He was fairly smooth-talking.
-wrenching Gut-wrenching scene The scene was so gut-wrenching.

Table 5.3.8.1j: Common End-term Preposition Compound-modifier Adjectives

Preposition Examples Not Following the Noun
-after sought-after jobs These jobs are highly sought-after.
-by drive-by shooting Last night’s shooting was a drive-by.
-down Trickle-down economics That wealth didn’t quite trickle down.
-out All-out war The war went all-out after a year.
-up made-up names
built-up neighbourhood
Those names sound so made up.
The area is more built up now.

Table 5.3.8.1k: Common Number + Time-period Compound Modifiers

Duration Examples Not Following the Noun
-day Five-day trial period The trial period lasts five days.
-hour Eleventh-hour bid The bid came in the eleventh hour.
-minute 25-minute presentation The presentation lasted 25 minutes.
-month Ten-month term The term ends after ten months.
-second Nine-second sprint He finished in under ten seconds.
-week 32-week co-op term The co-op term is 32 weeks.
-year Four-year degree program An applied degree takes four years.
The second second-rate actor the director wanted the second actor to be second rate
The film’s 15-week run shattered box-office records The film shattered box-office records with its run of 15 weeks
Two-way street that street goes two ways
After-tax income Our income after taxes is laughable.
Duty-free goods
First-come-first-served basis
Garbage-filled streets
Gut-wrenching scene
Large-scale development
Many-sided issue
Mountain-climbing enthusiast
Odd-sounding name
One-trick pony This pony has only one trick
one-sentence paragraph That paragraph only has one sentence.
Out-of-province funding We went out of province for our funding.
Pay-as-you-go plan We selected a plan that would have us pay as we go.
Quick-witted lady
Short-handed goal
Smooth-talking salesman
Snow-capped mountains
Soon-to-be graduate
Strong-willed grandma
Two-faced charlatan
Tax-exempt services
Tear-jerking performance
Time-consuming activity
Trickle-down economics Claiming that wealth will trickle down is irresponsible.
User-friendly design
Would-be writer

But some have become one word, like handwritten and handmade, standalone

Compound adjectival Numbers

Two-thirds majority two thirds of the respondents
Two-year-old child the child is two years old
I’ve got ninety-nine problems, and grammar ain’t one. Pass the puck to number ninety-nine.

Suspended Hyphens

The 12- and 13-year-old kids the kids are 12 and 13 years old
The well-known and -loved song the song became well known and loved
How to treat first-, second-, and third-degree burns the burns were first, second, and third degree
Funding for medium- to large-scale businesses
Scores in the six- to seven-point range

Prefixes

  • Big hair in the mid-1980s
  • Populism results in new accusations of anti-Americanism (because “America” is capitalized)
  • My ex-girlfriend and I haven’t spoken in a decade
  • I re-wrote the essay
  • e-mail
  • Not with adverbs ending in -ly

Compound Nouns

Again, anything starting with “self-” (e.g., self-starter, self-esteem, self-care), “great-” (e.g., great-grandmother, great-uncle), or ending with “-in-law” (e.g., mother-in-law, sister-in-law) and numbers above 20 (twenty-one, forty-three). If someone said that you have poor people skills, does that mean you have skill in dealing with poor people? By hyphenating “people-skills,” they make it clear that you could be better at dealing with people in general.

Table 5.3.8.2a: Common Compound Units of Measurement

Unit Examples Not Following a Noun
-hours Kilowatt-hours
Work-hours
I’ve racked up a few kilowatt-hours this winter.
This project should take about 20 work-hours.
-miles air-miles Do you collect air-miles?
-year light-year The next star is about _ light-years away.

Table 5.3.8.2b: Common Prefixes Making Compound Nouns

Prefix Examples Not Following a Noun
all- all-inclusive resort
all-powerful tech giant
all-out offensive
Let’s just go to an all-inclusive.
Google’s dominance has made it all-powerful.
We sent everyone so our offensive was all-out.
ex- ex-girlfriend
ex-parrot
ex-premier Harcourt
I haven’t talked to my ex-girlfriend in ten years.
That bird is dead. It is an ex-parrot.
The ex-premier will be meeting with us today.
self- self-control
self-loathing
I’m exercising some self-control here.
I follow up my dessert with a little self-loathing

Table 5.3.8.2c: Common Three- or Four-term Compound Nouns

Compound Noun Plural
forget-me-not forget-me-nots
Jack-of-all-trades Jacks-of-all-trades
mother-in-law
father-in-law
mothers-in-law
fathers-in-law
Ne’er-do-well Ne’er-do-wells
Stick-in-the-mud sticks-in-the-mud
Writer-in-residence writers-in-residence
Box-office box-offices
Fixer-upper fixer-uppers
Great-grandfather Great-grandfathers
Court-martial courts-martial
Vice-president vice-presidents
Tractor-trailer tractor-trailers
Cabinet-maker cabinet-makers
Singer-songwriter singer-songwriters
City-state city-states
A has-been has-beens
Sing-along sing-alongs

Some words have become one word like headache, checkout, chequebook, uproar, downpour, input, sunrise, clearinghouse, bookkeeper, housekeeper, sightseeing, shipbuilding, cabinetmaker, blackboard, redhead, workplace, and even email

https://www.capstoneediting.com.au/blog/how-to-hyphenate-a-compound-noun

Compound Verbs

Usually pairing a noun with a verb, but some are now combined into one word.

With hyphens One-word compounds Two words (verb + preposition)
to air-condition
to baby-sit
to colour-code
to copy-edit
to double-check
to double-click
to dry-clean
to Google-search
to hand-wash
to ice-skate
to proof-edit
to reverse-engineer
to second-guess
to spot-check
to test-drive
to window-shop
to downgrade
to ghostwrite
to handpick
to handwrite
to multitask
to proofread
to shortchange
to troubleshoot
to waterproof
to whitewash
To check out
To log in
To step up

Source: Grammar Usage – Compound Verbs (Jamieson, 2010)

For more on hyphens, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.9: Long Dashes

For more on long dashes, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.10: Question Marks

Question marks obviously follow questions. However, if the question is a polite request for action rather than one where a Yes or No answer is expected—i.e., a rhetorical question—end the sentence with a period rather than a question mark (Jamieson, 2014).

For more on long dashes, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.11: Exclamation Marks

For more on exclamation marks, which should be used sparingly, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

5.3.12: Periods

For more on periods, see the following resources:

Return to the Complete List of Punctuation Covered in This Chapter Section

Key Takeaway

key iconNear the end of the editing stage, proofread for punctuation errors, such as comma and apostrophe misplacement, that would confuse your reader and embarrass yourself.

Exercises

1. Go through the above sections and follow the links to self-check exercises at the end of each section to confirm your mastery of the punctuation rules.

2. Take any writing assignment you’ve previously submitted for another course, ideally one that you did some time ago, perhaps even in high school. Scan for the punctuation errors covered in this section now that you know what to look for. How often do such errors appear? Correct them following the suggestions given above.

References

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Darling, C. (2014k). Dashes. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=912

Darling, C. (2014l). Question marks. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=963

Darling, C. (2014m). Exclamation marks. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=931

Darling, C. (2014n). Periods. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=954

Driscoll, D., & Brizee, A. (2018, February 16). Extended rules for using commas. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/02/

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Jamieson, P. (2010, January 7). Grammar usage – compound verbs. ProofreadNOW. Retrieved from https://www.proofreadnow.com/blog/bid/29485/Grammar-Usage-Compound-Verbs

Jamieson, P. (2014, July 16). Polite requests. ProofreadNOW. Retrieved from https://www.proofreadnow.com/blog/polite-requests

Keck, R., & Angeli, E. (2018, February 21). Introduction and general usage in defining clauses. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/645/1/

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Penn, J. (2011c, December 16). Colon. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/colon.html

Penn, J. (2011d, December 25). Semicolon. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/semicolon.html

Penn, J. (2011e, December 25). Parentheses. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/parentheses.html

Penn, J. (2011f, December 16). Brackets. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/brackets.html

Penn, J. (2011g, December 16). Hyphens. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/hyphen.html

Penn, J. (2011h, December 16). Hyphen and dashes. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/hyphen-and-dashes.html

Penn, J. (2011i, December 16). Exclamation point. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/exclamation-point.html

Penn, J. (2011j, December 16). Period. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/period.html

Penn, J. (2012, January 2). Question mark. The Punctuation Guide. Retrieved from http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/question-mark.html

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Purdue OWL. (n.d.). Exercise: Apostrophes. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/3/3/10

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Simmons, R. L. (2007b, November 24). The conjunctive adverb. Grammar Bytes! Retrieved from http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/conjunctiveadverb.htm

Simmons, R. L. (2008, January 24). The intransitive verb. Grammar Bytes! Retrieved from http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/intransitiveverb.htm

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Simmons, R. L. (2018b). The gerund. Grammar Bytes! Retrieved from http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/gerund.htm

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Straus, J. (2014a, June 5). Apostrophes. The Grammar Book. Retrieved from https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/apostro.asp

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Straus, J. (2014d, February 18). Question marks. The Grammar Book. Retrieved from https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/qMarks.asp

Straus, J. (2014e, June 4). Periods. The Grammar Book. Retrieved from https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/periods.asp

Straus, J. (2015a, December 5). Colons. The Grammar Book. Retrieved from https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/colons.asp

Straus, J. (2015b, December 16). Colons. The Grammar Book. Retrieved from https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/exclaim.asp

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Straus, J. (2018b). Dashes. The Grammar Book. Retrieved from https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/dashes.asp

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