3 Cases of Using the Wrong Punctuation

By Mark Nichol - 2 minute read

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In each of the following sentences, the wrong punctuation has been employed to aid in organization of a sentence. Discussion after each example explains the problem, and a revision demonstrates the solution.

1. Ensure that you have an escape route while driving in traffic, drive at a speed that places your vehicle outside clusters of vehicles.

This sentence suffers from a comma splice—the use of a comma to separate two independent clauses. A more potent punctuation mark should be used instead: “Ensure that you have an escape route while driving in traffic; drive at a speed that places your vehicle outside clusters of vehicles” (Alternatively, a dash could replace the comma, or the content could be divided into two sentences. Or, because the second clause is an extension of the first one, a colon would be appropriate.)

2. An executive in the organization perceives a need for change, a digitalization project, for example, that will help pull the company ahead of its competitors.

When a parenthesis within a parenthesis occurs, use distinct punctuation marks to aid the reader in recognizing the hierarchy of the sentence elements; retain commas for one parenthetical element within another, and employ dashes or parentheses to frame the more significant interjection: “An executive in the organization perceives a need for change—a digitalization project, for example—that will help pull the company ahead of its competitors.”

3. For example, implement processes that generate sources of new learning; encourage systemic thinking in distilling and acting on the environment feedback received; and facilitate effective listening to customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders with the objective of driving continuous improvement.

When one or more items in a list themselves include lists, semicolons serve as supercommas to distinguish the two levels of organization. However, they function only if the sentence ends with the final list item. If a phrase that applies to all list items follows the final list item, as “with the objective of driving continuous improvement” does here, the final semicolon “traps” that phrase so that it appears to apply only to that item.

To avoid this error, revise the sentence to eliminate the use of semicolons: “For example, implement processes that generate sources of new learning as well as those that encourage systemic thinking in distilling and acting on the environment feedback received and facilitate effective listening to customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders with the objective of driving continuous improvement.”

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1 Response to “3 Cases of Using the Wrong Punctuation”

  • D.A.W.

    Most British writers think that comma splices are perfectly acceptable.
    I am not defending this notion, but rather, I condemn it.
    It just needs to be made clear that North American English is the Supreme Law of the Land here. Britons, Irishmen, Australians, South Africans, etc., are welcome guests here, but the old adage of “When in Rome, live as the Romans do,” does apply.
    Such things as comma splices, “the family were”, and “the staff are” are all illegal here, as is “I took the pram out of the boot of my car while I was putting petrol in the tank, and then I rolled the pram into my matie’s flat. Then that bloke put it into the dustbin!”

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