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Writing: 13 Top Punctuation Problems For Writers And Readers

Writing: 13 Top Punctuation Problems for Writers and Readers

Headshot of Debbie Young

Debbie Young sticks her neck out on punctuation (photo by Angela Fitch Photography)

What really irritates you in punctuation? Excessive use of exclamation marks?!!! Too, many, misplaced, commas? avoiding capital letters? Apostrophe's in the wrong place's?

I put this question to the ALLi hive of self-published authors via our Facebook forum recently and wasn't surprised at the impassioned response. Just as the beauty of correct grammar, properly used, is sheer joy to writers, grammatical errors can enrage.

“It's not rocket science! Learn the rules or hire a good editor!” exclaimed one of our members.

I've compiled their answers into this handy checklist. If any of the points below ring warning bells with you, you might want to look up the rules in the appropriate reference guide for your country's version of English – or indeed any other language in which you write your books. And if you can't master the rules yourself, make sure you never cast your manuscript out into the world until it's been given the once-over by someone who can.

13 Pet Hates in Punctuation

  • Em dashes used instead of en dashes, and vice versa
  • Using colons and semi-colons too frequently or needlessly, when starting a new sentence would read better
  • Using semi-colons when colons should be used, and vice versa
  • Allowing sentences to run on and on without punctuation, leaving the reader to puzzle out what's going on unaided
  • Writing very long paragraphs, especially when they contain a change of subject that is just crying out for a fresh paragraph to start
  • When writing about animals, using “it” instead of “he” or “she”
  • Using multiple exclamation marks – or even a single one – to suggest emotion (most sentences are stronger without)
  • Misplaced apostrophes
  • Lack of commas between clauses
  • Using the wonderfully named Camel Case, ie a capital letter in the middle of a word, suggestive of the camel's hump, such as iPhone
  • Over-use of the word “had” in past perfect, when you just need one or two to establish the tense
  • The use of periods in a sentence. To. Add. Emphasis. Like. This.
  • Use of quotation marks when not necessary, using them like air quotes in speech

4 Peeves Up for Debate

For some writers, the following are no crime, while others find them outrageous. Whichever side you come down on, apply your decision consistently.

  • Starting a sentence with a conjunction
  • Applying the Oxford comma
  • Missing conjunctions mid-sentence eg “she cleaned her teeth, brushed her hair”
  • Flouting grammar rules to maintain the author's voice or the convincing speech of a character

Last Word

What I hope all writers will agree on is that rules should never be imposed for their own sake. Language should be allowed to evolve continually, as it has always done. Otherwise we'd still all be communicating like cavemen.

Last word therefore goes to George Orwell, writing in his famous essay Politics and the English Language:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

With thanks to Debi Alper, Jessica Bell, Chris Calder, Karl Drinkwater, Eliza Green, Dan Holloway, Mari Howard, Kassandra Lamb, Jill Marsh, Lucy McCarraher, Chrissie Parker, Amy Shojai, Lorna Sixsmith, and J J Toner, whose thoughts I've incorporate above, and many more ALLi members who joined the conversation over on our closed Facebook forum – one of the many benefits of ALLi membership. 

JOIN THE CONVERSATION We'll be happy to discuss any of these points, or any punctuation errors that we've missed, via the comments.



This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. Totally agree about the 13 pet hates, but I’m out on the 4 pet peeves.
    You see, I miss out conjunctions, use the Oxford comma, and commit other ‘sins’. And is it so well bad, like, keeping in the author’s voice?

  2. Thanks for this. One point: I think knee-jerk hatin’ on ‘Missing conjunctions mid-sentence, e.g., “she cleaned her teeth, brushed her hair”” misses the drama, the speed or impatience it possibly conveys. If it reads well, if we’ve gained reader’s trust, punctuation becomes part of our bag of tricks.

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