In the midst of your National Punctuation Day festivities, check out these tips from the comma and semi-colon experts at Saint Leo's Learning Resource Center.

By Colleen Sexton

Happy National Punctuation Day!

What's that? You didn't know and don't care?  Let's see if this example changes your mind.

Envision yourself at Thanksgiving dinner. The oven timer dings and your grumbling stomach commands you to shout:  "Let's eat Grandma!"

Congratulations! You've turned the holiday meal into a cannibal free-for-all.

With the help of one little comma, however, your exclamation becomes, "Let's eat, Grandma" and now everyone, including Grandma, can enjoy the meal together.

As you can see, a well-placed comma or other punctuation mark makes all the difference in the world.

So grab your well-worn copy of The Elements of Style, curl up on the couch with your favorite beverage, and enjoy National Punctuation Day!

In honor of the occasion, the professional staff of the Learning Resource Center has highlighted the most common punctuation errors and how to fix them.

1. Non-possession apostrophe use

Incorrect:  Saint Leo University has the best students'.

Remember, just because a word has an "s" on it doesn't mean that it requires an apostrophe. To figure out if you need a possessive apostrophe on a word, see if it owns anything in the sentence.

Correct: Saint Leo University has the best students.

Correct: Saint Leo University's students are the best.

2.  Apostrophe use in academic papers (contractions)

Incorrect: The doctor didn't mean to sound sarcastic.

Academic papers are serious business. While contractions make students' lives easier, they are not academic…at all. They tend to be seen as lazy/unprofessional. So take that extra few seconds and write out the compete words:

Correct: The doctor did not mean to sound sarcastic.

3. No comma after a subordinating conjunction

Incorrect: Even though I like reading books I do not like reading about food when I am hungry.

That sentence is a mouthful—no pun intended. When you start out a sentence with a subordinate conjunction (which is an intimidating term for a few small words: when, after, although, unless), you must have a comma after the subordinate clause. Each part of the sentence helps the other make sense. In our sentence, we would put the comma after books:

Correct: Even though I like reading books, I do not like reading about food when I am hungry.

4. Incorrect semi-colon use

Incorrect: When I went to the LRC to get some popcorn; I ended up seeing a tutor.

Semi-colons are used as a way to join two closely related complete sentences. They add spice to your writing repertoire.   They do not act as super commas—which the incorrect sentence is trying to do.

Correct: I went to the LRC to see a tutor; the office covers almost all of the subjects offered at Saint Leo University.  

Correct: I went to the LRC to get some popcorn; I ended up seeing a tutor.
(Here, we are tying two closely related sentences together.

5. Comma splices

Incorrect: I went to the LRC and I saw a tutor.

When you have two complete sentences joined by a conjunction, you must must must use a comma to separate the clauses. The comma will always come before the conjunction.

Correct: I went to the LRC, and I saw a tutor.

Bonus: Look for the FANBOYS words (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) throughout your writing to see if you need a comma by them. Most times you will probably just be using them in complete sentences (I like this and that), but it is good practice to scan for them to see if you missed an essential comma.

6. Incorrect comma usage for lists

Incorrect: I like reading writing and snowboarding.

Incorrect: I like reading, and writing.

When you have a list of three or more things/activities/people, you must include commas between them. Do not include commas when you only have two items.

Correct:I like reading, writing, and snowboarding.

Correct: I like reading and writing.

7. Exclamation marks

Incorrect: I love going to the LRC!

While the use of the exclamation mark isn't completely wrong, it is not popular in the academic community. Stick with exclamation marks in dialogue as a command (Close the door now!) and in creative writing. Exclamation marks, unless explicitly okay'ed by a professor, have no place in academic papers! (Do as we say—not as we do.)

Correct: I love going to the LRC.

8. Periods as commas

Incorrect: After I walked through the LRC's doors.  I went into the computer lab.

Take a look at the example. The first piece "When I walked through the LRC's doors." is not a complete sentence. Plus, we don't know what happened—the reader is left hanging! The second piece here "I went into the computer lab." answers the first piece. Instead of a period, use a comma:

Correct: After I walked through the LRC's doors, I went into the computer lab.

Bonus: You can flip the sentence around without a comma (remember our subordinate clause section?):
I went into the computer lab after I walked through the LRC's doors.

9. Using quotation marks to emphasize words

Incorrect: He really didn't "need" to go to the park.

This is not always incorrect, but it is something to use sparingly. When you absolutely positively need to highlight a word for emphasis, you can use italics (some even prefer bolding.) Though, it is always best to talk to your professor about his or her preference. Some people have said that using quotation marks for emphasis was accepted in classes.

Correct: He really didn't need to go to the park.

10. Always listening to Microsoft Word's grammar checker

This is the basis of a lot of different punctuation errors. You have to be the checker for the checker! While Word does catch bigger errors, it is not flawless

Tips: Before you hit correct, really think about whether or not Word is taking you in the right direction. Remember, Word is missing the human element. You may have meant to write something different. That one correction Word made (oh so conveniently for you) might have made the difference between an A or a B.

For example: While I was writing this blog, I came across this:

Each part of the sentence helps the other make sense.

The grammar check underlined the word make—Word told me that is should be makes

Now, go print out that essay that's due in a few days, and scan your paper in honor of National Punctuation Day. Your grade and your professor will thank you for it.

What plans do you have to celebrate National Punctuation Day?

Colleen Sexton, SLU Class of 2010, is a professional English tutor in Saint Leo's Learning Resource Center. She is married to her high school sweetheart and is an avid reader and writer of young adult fiction. She loves working with students who are looking to improve their writing because she believes everyone can be effective writers if they are pointed in the "write" direction.  

Image Credit: donds

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Student Success Tips: How To Ace A Multiple-Choice Test

Student Success Tips: Editing Your Paper In 10 Steps

Roadblocks To Student Success: 3 Tutoring Myths