5 Types of Punctuation Problems

By Mark Nichol

Each of the following sentences omits or misuses punctuation, resulting in possible confusion when a word or phrase is attached to a main clause or a transition occurs. Discussion and revision explain and resolve each error.

1. He has no clue period.

What is a clue period? There is no such thing. The person in question has no clue, and the speaker or writer emphasizes the point by appending the word period to the sentence to suggest finality; this tag word must be separated from the main clause by a comma to clarify its nonessential nature: “He has no clue, period.”

2. It was the kind of dialogue sitcom writers aspire to create, only it was a real conversation.

Only is an interjection, so it must be set off from the independent clause that follows. However, a stronger form of punctuation must precede it so that only does not appear to be parenthetical because it is bracketed by a pair of commas: “It was the kind of dialogue sitcom writers aspire to create—only, it was a real conversation.”

3. The reality is no industry is exempt from at least assessing the implications of the new standard.

A phrase like “the reality is” sets up the main clause of the sentence, so it must be set off from the statement: “The reality is, no industry is exempt from at least assessing the implications of the new standard.” (Alternatively, that can replace the punctuation: “The reality is that no industry is exempt from at least assessing the implications of the new standard.”)

4. She was one of just a handful of delegates who were willing to speak to the media as many fear for the safety of family still living in North Korea.

As could be misunderstood to mean “while,” so a comma must be inserted between the main clause and the dependent clause to clarify that it is standing in for because: “She was one of just a handful of delegates who were willing to speak to the media, as many fear for the safety of family still living in North Korea.”

5. The adoption of the technology hasn’t moved more quickly because there remains a general lack of understanding about it.

This sentence presents a miscue—the potential for reader misunderstanding because the uninterrupted nature of the sentence implies that an explanation of why the technology adoption has moved more quickly will follow. To clarify that no such information is forthcoming, break the sentence before the conjunction: “The adoption of the technology hasn’t moved more quickly, because there remains a general lack of understanding about it.” (Better yet, invert the sentence and adjust the wording of the main clause as needed: “Because there remains a general lack of understanding about the technology, its adoption has been slow.”)

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4 Responses to “5 Types of Punctuation Problems”

  • Agua Caliente

    As a reader, I found #2 perfectly clear as originally written. I said it aloud both ways—with the comma and the dash—listening for a difference in emphasis, which I heard. Still, I’m fine with the comma, depending on the writer’s intentions.

  • Lynn

    I had the same thought as Agua. I don’t see any reason for a comma after “only.” It’s similar to saying “except” or “yet,” and neither would require a comma. (E.g., “except it was a real conversation.”)

  • venqax

    I think “except” and “yet would require commas there, too.

  • Lynn

    Regarding a comma after “only” (except, but, yet), I certainly want to be accurate while I edit, so could someone kindly point me to an authoritative source for this rule? I searched again and could find nothing about this in the Chicago Manual of Style or other sources found on Google. Dictionary definitions of “only” give the following usage and examples:

    From TheFreeDictionary.com:
    conj.
    1. Were it not that; except that: “We would have reached the summit, only the weather got bad.”
    2.
    a. With the restriction that; but: “You may go, only be careful.”
    b. However; and yet: “The merchandise is well made, only we can’t use it.”

    From Dictionary.com:
    conjunction
    8. but (introducing a single restriction, restraining circumstance, or the like): “I would have gone, only you objected.”

    Dictionary.Cambridge.org cites many similar examples with explanations. Mark/venqax, could you please provide your source for this rule? If I’m mistaken, I would appreciate the correction. Thanks!

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