People like to talk about Oxford commas. A lot.
On any given day, that optional little comma before the “and” in “red, white, and blue” will get you close to 1 million hits on Google.
That’s a shame because it’s hard to make a mistake with the Oxford comma. Use it or don’t. Both choices are valid.
Meanwhile, little-discussed, barely-visible-on-Google punctuation errors continue to cause problems for many writers.
Here are some of the punctuation errors that, based on what I see in my editing work, merit more attention.
Missing comma after a year. When you write “We decided that Oct. 11, 2019 will be the date of our office potluck” without a comma after the year, you’re bifurcating the sentence in a way you never intended.
It’s almost like you’re saying: “We decided that Oct. 11; 2019 will be the date of our office potluck.”
The proper way to deal with years after specific dates is to think of them as parenthetical, extra information: We decided that Oct. 11, 2019, will be the date of our office potluck.
You don’t need to work out the logic behind this rule. It’s just a rule that a year after a specific date gets set off with commas.
However, no commas are needed if there’s no specific date: We decided that October 2019 is when we will hold our office potluck.
Period or comma after a quotation mark. British English users and fans of Wikipedia, avert your eyes. This one is for folks interested in the American rule.
Anytime it makes more sense to you to put a period or comma immediately after a quotation mark, heed the words of Talking Head David Byrne: Stop making sense.
For example, maybe you’re using the quote marks to call attention to a word: He used the word “wowza.” Or maybe you’re using the quote marks to indicate the title of a song, book or movie: He saw “Jaws.”
Either way, the period goes inside. It doesn’t matter that the period applies to the whole sentence and not just the part in quotes. The rule is, simply: A period or comma never comes after a closing quote mark.
For question marks and exclamation points, it’s different. These can go inside or outside, depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted part. Did he use the word “wowza”? We saw “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Single quote marks for “words as words.” Everyone knows quotation marks indicate direct speech: John said, “Welcome, friends.” And everyone has seen quote marks used to highlight words you’re talking about, as we did above with “wowza.”
But people don’t know the rule for that second one. They figure that, since quote marks are for quotations, it somehow sullies them to use them for emphasis.
Then they remember that there exist marks that are kinda-sorta a halfway point in between: single quote marks. So they use them like quote marks lite: He used the word ‘wowza.’
Consider this another “stop making sense” moment. No matter how much single quote marks may seem like a good compromise, that’s just not how the rules say to use them.
No colon after “including.” “Our dental practice offers a range of patient-centered services including: orthodontics, fillings and cleanings.” Contrary to what I see in many articles I edit, that colon shouldn’t be there.
Think of “including” as any other transitive verb. You don’t write “I look forward to seeing: Grandma.” “Including” works basically the same way.
Comma before a “but” that doesn’t introduce a whole clause. I like shellfish, but I don’t like fish. I like shellfish but not fish. Those are both punctuated correctly.
The rule for whether to put a comma before “but” says that, if the stuff after the “but” is a complete clause, with both a subject and verb, you can use an (optional) comma. If, however, the stuff after the “but” doesn’t contain both a subject and verb, no comma.
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