Don't make these 11 punctuation mistakes that 'irritate people the most,' say grammar experts

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They're little, they're annoying, and people go crazy when you don't use them right. Yup, we're talking punctuation marks — commas, quotation marks, periods, semicolons, and the like.

Good punctuation can go a long way when it comes to job hunting and being taken seriously at work. The average recruiter spends about 7.4 seconds scanning a resume. So the last thing you need is for them to get hung up on a comma or apostrophe you put in the wrong place.

We've written many books and articles on grammar and spelling, and also host an NPR podcast on language. Based on comments and responses from our readers and listeners, here are 11 common punctuation mistakes that irritate people the most:

1. Misplaced apostrophes

You don't use apostrophes to make words into plurals. But you do use them:

  • To show possession (the person's house), except in the case of pronouns. In this case, there's no apostrophe (it's not her's, but hers). 
  • To stand in for missing letters in contractions (have not = haven't). 

2. Misusing "it's"

We hear managers rant about this mistake so often that we decided to talk about it separately: Apostrophes show possession, but there's a huge exception: Its and it's.

To say something belongs to it, you say its without an apostrophe, as in its house. It's with an apostrophe always means it is. 

3. Incorrect quotation marks

People seem to think that quotation marks can go anywhere, but, of course, they can't. Here's when to use quotation marks:

  • To set off exact language that comes from someone else, or from media like a book or play.
    Example: The CEO said "cost-cutting should never come at the expense of our team."
  • Around the title of an article, movie, play or some other kind of media.
    Example: I just read an interesting article called "Cost-Cutting Leads to Extensive Personnel Cuts."
  • To show that a word is slang.
    Example: The customer complained about his "weird flex."
  • To be ironic or sarcastic.
    Example: My "best friend" in the company really stuck it to me. 

4. Putting periods in the wrong place

The right place is inside the quotation marks, not outside, as in: They said, "See, this is where the period goes."

It's the same if you're quoting a book or a line from an article. (One note: To complicate matters, in the U.K. and Canada, it's correct to put periods outside.)

5. Putting commas in the wrong place

Many people think commas should be sprinkled liberally throughout a sentence, like putting croutons in a salad. But commas aren't supposed to be scattered in sentences without rhyme or reason.

These are the right places for a comma:

  • In dates, dates, addresses, titles and numbers.
    Example: Her interview was on January 5th, 2022.
  • Between two clauses (or parts of a sentence with a subject and verb) that are joined by words like and, but, yet, so and on.
    Example: She was supposed to meet with the manager yesterday, but he moved the meeting to today.
  • After an introductory clause.
    Example: After meeting the manager, she reported back to her team.
  • On each side of a clause that isn't essential to the meaning of a sentence.
    Example: She thought that the manager, who has only been here for three months, is going to be a great addition to the team. 
  • On each side of a nonessential description that applies to a nearby noun.
    Example: The advertising manager, who came from the New York office, was hired three months ago.
  • To set off the name of someone you're addressing directly.
    Example: Tyler, I'd like to set up a meeting.
  • After each item in a series in a sentence.
    Example: She met with the manager, the COO, and the new advertising staffer.

6. Using semicolons like commas

Semicolons might look like a fancier comma, but they're used differently and not nearly as often. Among the most common ways to use a semicolon:

  • To join two complete but closely related sentences.
    Example: Sales came in above forecast this month; they're projected to be up next month, too.
  • In-between two related sentences when the second sentence starts with words like "however,"
    "therefore," "besides," "furthermore" or "for instance."
    Example: Sales came in above forecast this month; however, things don't look as good for next month.
  • In place of a comma when there's a long list of items in a series or a list that already contains commas.
    Example: Let's arrange a meeting with Rico, the sales director; Tyler, the head recruiter; Brynn, VP of marketing; and you.

If you're still not sure when to use a semicolon, you might be better off just skipping it entirely. As writer Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Do not use semicolons ... All they do is show you've been to college."

7. Putting two spaces after a period

Back in the old days of typewriters (and early computers), there was a hard and fast rule: Two spaces after a period.

Times have changed and so have spaces. It's one space now. Period. Use two and you look like you're from the Ice Age.

8. Using ellipses

Ellipses are the three dots that come in between words or at the beginning or end of a sentence. They're normally used to indicate a missing word or thought, or to show hesitation, change of mood, or a thought trailing off. 

For some reason, ellipses make many people very irritated, and the majority of managers we spoke with said they can't stand them. 

9. Using too many dashes

Lately, more people punctuate with dashes instead of the more standard comma or period. That's fine, but only if you don't overdo it to the point of annoying your audience.

Use dashes to set off a particularly important detail or to interrupt a thought. Don't use a dash with a comma — like this, which is incorrect.

10. Capitalizing too many words

Sometimes people capitalize a word to make it stand out. But not every word can or should be capitalized.

It's right to capitalize:

  • The first word of a sentence.
  • The first letter in a proper noun (like a name, day of the week, month, or holiday — but not seasons like spring).
  • Most of the words in a title (you don't capitalize words like "the," "of" or "a").

And that's pretty much it.

11. Using too many exclamation points

It's great to be enthusiastic, and it's great to share your enthusiasm. But it's not great to overdo the exclamation points.

Most people we've spoken with say that one or two exclamation points in an email is the absolute maximum. More than that, and it begins to get on their nerves.

Our advice: When in doubt, don't use them!

Kathy and Ross Petras are the brother-and-sister co-authors of "Awkword Moments" "You're Saying It Wrong" and "That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means." They cohost an NPR podcast on language, "You're Saying it Wrong," and have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Harvard Business Review. Follow them on Twitter @kandrpetras.

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