Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Punctuation Problems

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Punctuation Problems

Article excerpt

Victor Borge gets excited about commas, periods and dashes. But he's about the only one.

Still, punctuation is one of the main mechanisms we use to clarify our written thoughts. A comma can alter the whole meaning of a sentence.

A few common punctuation errors plague almost all newsrooms. This regular parade of bloopers either confuses readers or convinces them that we're asleep at our keyboards. The good news is that the same errors keep repeating themselves. So writers who master a few simple rules solve their problems once and for all.

So here's a little BBI - boring but important - lesson on five of the most common newspaper punctuation errors and ways to avoid them:

1. Commas between modifiers: So when do you use commas in a string of modifiers leading up to a noun? The easiest way to deal with the problem is to remember that the commas substitute for "and."

Notice how that method would have avoided these two errors: "No, I never had one, particular John Keating, but I had a few teachers who were inspirations to me."

"George Douglas looked out to the gently rolling grass-covered land from the window of his home on Sauvie Island...."

You wouldn't say "one AND particular John Keating." So you don't need the comma between "one" and "particular." But you could say "gently rolling AND grass-covered land." So you do need a comma between those two modifiers: "gently rolling, grass-covered land."

2. Failure to set off introductory subordinate clauses with commas: Mrs. Grundy's old students will remember that subordinate clauses contain a subject and a predicate but can't stand alone. "If it costs money" is the subordinate clause in the improperly punctuated sentence, "If it costs money it's an uphill battle to win it."

But because introductory subordinate clauses are ALWAYS set off with commas, the proper form is: "If it costs money, it's an uphill battle."

3. Failure to set off participial phrases with commas: This one's a little tougher. Most of us have I forgotten how to recognize a

But the rule is simple. A participle is simply an adjective formed from a verb. Take "run," for example, make it "running," attach it to a noun and you have a participle, as in "running dogs of imperialism."

The language is full of participles, which often introduce descriptive phrases: "..."The man, running at full speed, rounded the corner. …

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