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The Most Common Punctuation Mistakes in Content Editing

Think you know where to place a comma? You may be surprised to learn otherwise. Contemporary Editing recommends that when in doubt aspiring editors should out leave punctuation marks. Perhaps the problem is too few copy editors doubt themselves. Below are the some of the most common content editing errors and punctuation mistakes we see.

Too Many Commas

Editors should only add punctuation marks if they can recite Contemporary Editing’s advice: “Most punctuation errors are overpunctuation errors.”

For example, some content editors would punctuate the following sentence as follows:

Modern English Usage author H.W. Fowler, and How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them, author Ben Yagoda, called these words “elegant variations”.

First, if you’re writing content in the United States, the period belongs inside the quotation marks. The rest of the sentence should be punctuated as follows:

Modern English Usage author H.W. Fowler and How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them author Ben Yagoda called these words “elegant variations.”

Some people feel compelled to throw a comma in front of every “and,” “but,” or “or” they see. This is incorrect. In the above example_, Modern English Usage_ author H.W. Fowler and How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them author Ben Yagoda form a compound subject – i.e., two subjects. Just as you wouldn’t place a comma in “apples and oranges,” you shouldn’t place a comma between the book authors.

Nor should you place a comma between the subjects (Modern English Usage author H.W. Fowler and How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them author Ben Yagoda) and the verb (called).

Too Few Commas

Content writers tend to omit commas in dates, addresses and degrees.

  • Dates. Separate days of the week from dates with a comma: She was born Friday, July 18, 1975. Separate dates from the rest of the sentence with a comma: The February 24, 2014, PTA meeting ended early due to an unexpected snowstorm.
  • Addresses. Separate the city from the state with a comma and separate the state from the rest of the sentence with a comma: The mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, was the last politician to vote. If the country is mentioned, separate it with commas, too: The company was headquartered in New York City, New York, United States, but it’s moving to Tokyo, Japan.
  • Degrees. Separate a degree or certification from the rest of the sentence with a comma: Jim Smith, MD, FACS, will speak at next year’s conference.

Missing Comma Before “Which”

If you think a sentence requires “which” instead of “that,” you need to use a comma. Brush up on your which v. that rules with Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty.

Commas Before Dependent Clauses

This is, by far, the most common mistake in content editing. Consider the following sentences:

  1. She bought the Mercedes, but she declined the extended warranty.
  2. She bought the Mercedes but declined the extended warranty.

In the first sentence, “she declined the extended warranty” is an independent clause. It has both a subject (she) and a verb (declined), so it can stand on its own without Microsoft Word underlining it as a fragment.

In the second sentence, “declined the extended warranty” is a dependent clause. It can’t stand on its own because it’s missing a subject.

Ninety-nine percent of content writers and editors would punctuate the second sentence as:

She bought the Mercedes, but declined the extended warranty.

This is wrong.

Commas in Correlative Conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions come in pairs like the following examples:

  • Both/and
  • Whether/or
  • Either/or
  • Neither/nor
  • Not only/but also

Content writers submit a lot of “not only/but also” sentences. Write.com provided the following example:

The article is not only a masterpiece of the written word but is grammatically sound.

In the preceding example, you wouldn’t use a comma. In the following, you would because a noun and a subject follow the conjunction.

The article is not only a masterpiece of the written word, but it is grammatically sound.

Commas in Front of Partial Quotations

When excluding part of a quotation, don’t use a comma to introduce the part you’re using. For example:

In 1998, former Attorney General Janet Reno sicced the U.S. Justice Department on Microsoft “to preserve competition and promote innovation in the computer software industry.”

The full quote was, “We are acting to preserve competition and promote innovation in the computer software industry.”

As thepunctuationguide.com said, commas or their absence can change the meaning of a sentence. If you’re going to work as an editor, it’s important to learn how to use them. If you know how to punctuate a sentence, sign up to be an editor or a proofreader with ContentWriters, and we’ll start sending you work. It’s that simple.

Miranda M.

Miranda is a Cleveland-based content writer, magazine writer, editor, and memoirist.

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