Style Matters #33: When one tiny missing mark confuses everything


In the rush to file stories or wrap up a manuscript, reporters and writers often overlook the simplest things, such as missing punctuation marks, which can alter intended meaning in unintended ways.

It pays to read back over your work before passing it into the production stream, firstly checking for the presence of the most obvious mark, the full point. While most writers automatically ensure full points are placed at the ends of sentences, sometimes they will tinker with a sentence – or reshape it completely – and their focus will rightly switch to clarity of the sentence rather than its terminating mark.

Of course, it’s pretty common to see commas go missing in action or be poorly placed, as was explained in an earlier post. For example, there is a world of difference between Let’s eat Grandma and Let’s eat, Grandma. Then there’s the classic phrase a woman without her man is nothing, which can be transformed with the use of judicious punctuation: a woman, without her, man is nothing; or a woman: without her, man is nothing; or a woman, without her man, is nothing.

But, as a copy editor, the missing punctuation mark that most often goes undetected by writers is the apostrophe and this may be because there are several linguistic contractions where, once the apostrophe is removed, leave whole, visually familiar words but ones that have quite a different meaning.

Here are some examples (with the meanings after each):

won’t (will not)
wont (one’s customary behaviour)

can’t (can not)
cant (hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature)

we’re (we are)
were (plural past tense of be)

she’d (she would)
shed (a garden workshop)

we’d (we would)
wed (married)

I’ll (I will)
ill (unwell)

he’ll (he will)
hell (hades)

I’d (I would)
Id (the unorganised part of the personality structure that contains a human’s basic, instinctual drives)

So, before you launch your next story into the ether, take a moment to read it aloud because this is a good way to pick up missing or misplaced punctuation. It also allows you “hear” the text and not simply read it. During the original writing phase, you will have read each sentence multiple times and that sort of familiarity often sees writers read over obvious errors.


If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters or connect via Facebook by liking the reporting4work Facebook Page 

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