Five tips for cleaning up grammar and punctuation

Posted on April 16, 2010

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I spend a significant part of my day copyediting articles, news releases, speeches and other communications; and the day becomes frustrating when I see the same careless errors on three or four different documents. The AP Stylebook and I pretty much serve the function of faucet filters: we remove any impurities we can catch in the communications workflow to provide a healthier and more satisfying paragraph. In the spirit of enlightening while venting, here are a few of the stones that tend to clog the pipes most often:

  1. A company is not a person. It’s not a “they” or “their” unless the reference is directly to its personnel. Avoid, “The company revealed their new office location.” Instead, “The company revealed its new office location”; or, better yet, “President John Smith revealed the firm’s new office location.”
  2. When using “however” as an adverb to mean “nevertheless,” punctuate it properly. It’s incorrect to write: “We earned a bonus however we won’t receive it for a month.” That’s a run-on sentence. Instead it should be, “We earned a bonus; however, we won’t receive it for a month.”
  3. Capitalize an individual’s title only when it precedes his or her name. Correct: “Acme Vice President Wile E. Coyote.” Incorrect: “Wile E. Coyote, Vice President of Acme.” Correct: “Wile E. Coyote, vice president of Acme.”
  4. Don’t drop the apostrophe on plural possessives. It’s “the ladies’ department” (not “the ladies department, where presumably ladies would be sold). There is no such word as “mens.” It’s already plural, so it’s “men’s clothing.” BTW, a strange rule from the style manual: to make a possessive of a singular common noun that ends in “s,” add ‘s unless the next word begins with “s.” So the following are correct: “the witness’s notes,” “the witness’ seat.” Makes you want to cry, doesn’t it?
  5. An ellipsis–three consecutive dots–is not a punctuation mark to indicate a pause. It is used within a quote to indicate that some of the quoted individual’s wording has been deleted or condensed or to indicate an incomplete thought. If you want to indicate a pause or break in the thought, use a dash. Avoid: “I drank another cup of tea…what was I thinking?” Correct: “I drank another cup of tea–what was I thinking?” or “I drank another cup of tea.  What was I thinking?”

If you’d like some more tips or have your own pet peeves, please leave a comment below.

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