Grammar Hammer Difficult Punctuation Marks

Yesterday marked the 11th annual National Punctuation Day, a day of celebration for word nerds and grammar enthusiasts.

To quote the National Punctuation Day website, the holiday honors “the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”

The site offers ideas for celebrating punctuation, connects teachers with a program that makes punctuation fun to learn, and is hosting an essay contest now through October 31.

In honor of this year’s National Punctuation Day, I asked my team of customer content specialists: “What punctuation mark do you find the most difficult to master?”

I got a wide range of responses, but the majority of them said the comma was the punctuation mark that caused the most consternation.

That’s not surprising, given what Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman, Jr. wrote in their 1931 book, “Writing and Thinking.”

“The comma is by far the most difficult mark of punctuation to master because of its many uses,” they lamented before dedicating an entire 17 pages exclusively to the comma and its usage. This included three pages of exercises.

I’ve addressed comma basics in previous Grammar Hammer posts, including how commas differ from other punctuation marks and common comma mistakes. However, because confusion still reigns, here are my three big rules for mastering commas.

1. Use a comma within the sentence to indicate the least possible separation in thought.

I’ve always considered commas to be the proverbial “breath mark” in a sentence. As a flutist, my music often has “breath marks” to indicate where I need to fill my lungs for the next musical phrase. Commas provide that breath mark in a sentence.

If you’re talking a mile a minute, the comma provides a gentle reminder that you should take a breath before you continue (and it separates clauses, modifiers, non-restrictive appositives, initials, titles, geographical expressions, etc.).

2. The Oxford comma is a thing, and I will defend it to the death.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m counting on my fellow word nerds to back me up. The Oxford comma would provide much-needed clarity in this example, offered by Grammarly: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” No, my parents are not Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

3. Be able to justify every comma you use.

When polling my content specialists, this was a common point with the copy we process each day. There are press releases where we want to either add or remove half a dozen commas. And remember, don’t overthink it.

Proper grammar is just the first step in getting your brand’s message across. Download the white paper Best Practices for Creating Media-Friendly Content for more press release writing tips.

Read more: The Most Common Grammar Mistakes