• Kim Kennett

To comma or not to comma (and other punctuation dilemmas)

Updated: Jun 7

Ah, the comma – the most overused bit of punctuation in written English. (Since I only speak and write English, I can’t venture a guess about other languages.) The default seems to be “when in doubt, add a comma.”

Commas are often a matter or preference, like the Oxford comma, which is the addition of a comma in a series of three or more phrases. For example:

The mouse, cat, and the dog ran out the door.

It is the comma after “cat” that is considered an Oxford comma. But the sentence makes just as much sense without it.

Commas can also indicate a pause to create emphasis. Examples are sentences that begin with “Well,” or “Finally,”…. They are also standard punctuation following words like “however” and “therefore.” And they help create clarity in long sentences, or even shorter ones. Here’s an entertaining example I found online:

1. I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.


2. I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

The sentence reads completely different without/with the comma after “Lady Gaga.”

(If you're not sure which is actually right, number 2 is the correct way of writing it. Number 1 suggests that the parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty – which is highly unlikely. Or is it?😉)

Often, however, (note the commas) the better choice is to rewrite the sentence:

I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.

Problem solved!

In the case of a long sentence, split it into shorter sentences.

Whichever style you choose, the main lesson is to be consistent with your use of commas. More on commas.

Panicking about apostrophes?

Even more perplexing to many writers is the dastardly apostrophe, which is used in contractions and possessives.

Contractions, such as “shouldn’t” for “should not,” “I’m” for I am, and “you’re” for “you are” (note the Oxford comma) are generally pretty straightforward.

It is possessives that get most people into trouble. (Oh, and no, it is not OK to leave them out if you don’t know what to do.)

Using an apostrophe as a possessive means “belongs to.” Most possessives are written as an apostrophe followed by the “s,” as in Serra's dog, which indicates singular possession. In the case of a plural possessive, you use “s” and then the apostrophe. For example:

David’s notebook is the one on the desk. (singular, because the notebook belongs to only David)

The Smiths’ house is the one on the corner. (plural, indicating more than one Smith lives there)

Of course, it depends on the word and its plurality. For example, the possessive form for child and children are both apostrophe and then “s.” Confused? Here’s where you can find more information on possessives.

In my experience, there are two other ways that people often use apostrophes incorrectly. That’s with numbers/dates and with “its” versus “it’s.

When referring to a decade, such as the 1980s (and note that this is the correct form), you’re using plural not possessive. Same with numbers if, for example, you’re talking about 10 and 20 dollar bills: 10s and 20s is the right way to write it, not 10’s and 20’s.

For “it’s” and its, just remember that “it’s” is a contraction for “it is,” whereas its is possessive (belongs to). More information.


Lastly, another type of punctuation that many writers struggle with is the semi-colon (;). Its (note: possessive) application is between two complete sentences. A complete sentence consists of a subject, verb and predicate. Here are some examples of proper semi-colon use:

I prefer to go skiing on Saturday; on Sunday we should tour the park.


The results of the test have not been posted yet; however, I believe that I did well.

Separating two complete sentences by a comma instead of a semi-colon results in a common punctuation error called a comma splice. It is also permissible to use semi-colons instead of commas in very long sentences to create clarity.

Here’s where you can find more information on punctuation. And here’s more tips to help you with your writing.

Yes, punctuation can be daunting. But it does matter and your customers will notice. Learning a few of the tricks and rules will help you come across like the professional you want to be.

And now a little humour for your day:

Magpie Marketing specializes in technical writing and content creation for the Canadian agriculture and food industries.

Need our assistance? Let’s talk!