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Punctuation Nerds: A Contest Just For You

A contest and a look at one puzzling punctuation trend.

Did you know that National Punctuation Day is coming up on September 24?  You still have time to enter the Punctuation Paragraph Contest and win a prize described as “a box of punctuation goodies”.  Here’s how to enter:

Write one paragraph, maximum of three sentences, using these 13 punctuation marks: apostrophe, brackets, colon, comma, dash, ellipsis, exclamation point, hyphen, parentheses, period, question mark, quotation mark, and semicolon. You may use a punctuation mark more than once. Entries will be accepted through September 30.

For more information about National Punctuation Day and where to send your entry, check the website at http://www.nationalpunctuationday.com/index.html.

In honor of this important holiday, I want to address one punctuation issue that brings out the punctuation police officer in me: the increasing use of unnecessary commas.  Granted, some comma decisions are discretionary, such as whether or not to use the serial comma (a, b, and c or a, b and c).  Great minds and important authorities disagree on this one, and it’s a battle I won’t engage except to say just be consistent and make sure the meaning is clear if you leave it out.

What confuses me is the insertion of commas in completely unnecessary spots.  I’m seeing this more and more, often between subject and verb as in these examples culled from recent news articles and marketing messages:

  • Residents who volunteer for this year's event, will act as volunteer scientists in collecting samples of SOD hosts such as tanoak and bay laurel leaves.
  • In 2010, the final year, just four of the 10 sites, slowed Medicare spending enough to qualify for a bonus.
  • Once implemented, this new partnership, will easily enable you to take advantage of the resources of both airlines to enhance your overall travel experience.

 

I can’t figure out why anyone thought a comma was needed in those spots.  Other instances seem to represent random places where the writer thinks one might pause in speaking:

  • What was once a heap of glaciers that melted over centuries to reveal 64 miles of blue beaches surrounded by colossal sand dunes, now draws visitors with its picturesque landscape and small town charm.
  • They think getting as much information and processing it as quickly as possible, is really the height of their intellectual life.

 

All right, I know that if you take the time, you can figure out what those sentences mean, and some folks feel that’s all we should care about in grammar and punctuation.  Why make such a fuss?  But a misplaced comma can cause confusion, as in this example:

  • In Geneva, the panel said, the government failed in its obligation to oversee the laundries. (Note: the scandal in question took place in Ireland, not in Geneva).

 

Or consider this pair of alternate meanings, courtesy of the Language Log:

  • I didn't marry Bob because I wanted a stable home life.
  • I didn't marry Bob, because I wanted a stable home life.

 

Which meaning do you think the author intended?  To learn more, as the television commercials say, Language Log recommends Chapter 20 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. (And by the way, that serial comma is sometimes called the Oxford comma, so you can pick your authority: Cambridge or Oxford...)

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Amanda September 13, 2011 at 02:59 PM
I can handle the unnecessary commas, but I LOATHE the misuse of apostrophes.
J.D. O'Connor (Editor) September 13, 2011 at 03:01 PM
Gulp... Editor
Kathleen September 13, 2011 at 03:06 PM
@Amanda: That's what is interesting about this topic -- we each have different pet peeves. Check out http://www.apostropheabuse.com/ for a few chuckles on your favorite punctuation error.
Chris Nicholson September 13, 2011 at 04:03 PM
For me, it's the shocking mis-use of the hyphen versus the dash-- it drives me crazy.
Amanda September 13, 2011 at 04:27 PM
...versus the semicolon.
Kathleen September 13, 2011 at 05:44 PM
@Chris: Is that irony, as in the comments to the last post? One doesn't always have control over the formatting when entering text on line, but I agree with you. We had big debates in my last job about whether or not to put spaces around a dash.
Chris Nicholson September 13, 2011 at 06:13 PM
Irony, but i have had to explain to people that there is a difference, especially with proper typography.
OC September 13, 2011 at 07:46 PM
@Chris: Can you please explain the proper use of a hyphen versus a dash (as well as En dash versus Em dash). I find them all very confusing.
Chris Nicholson September 13, 2011 at 08:34 PM
No, I can't. I remember, from being a style editor for law review, that an "em" and "en" dash have the physical length of the letters "M" and "N," respectively-- but I can't tell you the grammatical difference (if any). I personally use dashes liberally (and probably wrongly) to make my rambling writing more conversational and (hopefully) easier to parse. Excessive punctuation can be a nice crutch, and often is the lazy alternative to thoughtful sentence construction.
Kathleen September 13, 2011 at 08:45 PM
A hyphen is used only for hyphenating a word or pair of words, while an em dash is used to signal a pause or a break in thought, as Chris has used it above. An en dash is used to show numerical ranges.
X September 19, 2011 at 06:06 PM
Kathleen - I saw an interesting graphic over the weekend and thought of this article. "With the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin." (Graphic shows 4 people: JFK, Stalin, and two strippers.) "Without the Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin." (Graphic shows 2 people: JFK and Stalin, both of whom are dressed as strippers.)
Kathleen September 19, 2011 at 08:17 PM
That's a great illustration, DD! In my editing life, my bias was toward keeping the comma, since some writers were, ahem, challenged at figuring out when it might be confusing to leave it out. Why not opt for clarity? However, experts disagree -- apparently even the Oxford University Style Guide has dropped it -- so I thought I'd leave it open in the blog post. Thanks for taking up that challenge.
Crowley September 22, 2011 at 03:32 PM
En dashes are usually used in place of hyphens in compound adjectives (e.g., "post-World War I England"...where that hyphen is an en dash. I think the en dash also is used in giving a range of numbers. It has plenty of other uses I can't remember. The em dash is longer and is usually used like a parenthetical to offset clauses. It, too, has many more uses, though.
Crowley September 22, 2011 at 03:33 PM
I just saw that one recently! Cracked me up.
Crowley September 22, 2011 at 03:34 PM
Favorite way of illustrating proper comma usage: Let's eat Grandpa! Let's eat, Grandpa! Proper puncuation saves lives.
Robert L September 22, 2011 at 05:25 PM
Hearty, robust laughter was produced by your post. Thank you. I will use this for as long as I can remember it.
Kathleen December 17, 2011 at 09:33 PM
Chris and OC: Here's what the Columbia Journalism Review has to say about the em-dash: http://www.cjr.org/language_corner/on_dasher.php

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