Lame Duck Punctuation: 5 Tips to Better Writing By Avoiding These Punctuation Errors

What do a comma splice, a period outside a quotation mark, and an over abundance of exclamation points have in common? They are all lame ducks.

Many experienced authors and newbie authors share the same fear: losing face with readers because of one (seemingly innocuous) punctuation error.

The mistake has the potential to pull down the entire article as well as the credibility of the author. Hence, the article becomes ineffective or unsuccessful – a lame duck.

There’s a solution! Why panic when you can strengthen your writing habits by identifying any lame ducks before you submit your article? Steer clear of these poor punctuation habits.

Lame Duck: Excessive use of exclamation points.

Often a result of attempting to create exciting and energized content, authors will use exclamation points with reckless abandon. The result: Content that’s on the verge of hysterics!!!! Use an exclamation point or mark for exclamations, commands, or sound effects and review your piece for wayward exclamation points.

Click here for more on the exclamation point.

Lame Duck: Excessive use of ellipses …

An informal ellipsis is used to indicate trailing-off, hesitation, to be continued, or to convey the passage of time. So … when you see it used in writing … in great amounts … it … leaves much … to be desired. Be clear, direct, and confident in your writing – skip the ellipses and use stronger punctuation when appropriate.

Click here for more on the ellipses.

Lame Duck: The comma splice.

Joining two independent clauses is not the job for a comma. The following is an example of comma splice: “The wombat looks like a small bear, they may appear friendly, but they can be vicious creatures.” Avoid this lame duck by joining two independent clauses together with a period, semicolon, or a conjunction (e.g., “The wombat looks like a small bear; they may appear friendly, but they can be vicious creatures.”

Click here for more on the comma.

Lame Duck: Using an apostrophe in pronominal possessives.

Even if you know the rule and you’re typing too fast or you simply let the apostrophe go to your head, pledge to place a little extra care spotting apostrophe errors. One of the most common errors is the dreaded apostrophe used to indicate possession in a pronominal possessive (e.g., “your’s” instead of “yours”). It’s downright embarrassing and redundant; a pronominal possessive is already possessive!

Click here for more on the apostrophe.

Lame Duck: Using a colon to separate a verb from its complement or separate a preposition from its object.

A verb (e.g., need) shouldn’t be separated from its complement (i.e., someone or something that completes the statement).

Walter needs: pants, a tie clip, and a ninja. (Lame Duck)
Walter needs pants, a tie clip, and a ninja. (Right)

Click here for more on the colon.

Lame Duck: Periods and commas ALWAYS go inside quotation marks.

It may not seem correct at times, but the comma and period always belong inside quotations marks. Other forms of punctuation (e.g., semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points) may vary, but the comma and period is a fairly straight-forward rule.

“I love you”. (Lame Duck)
“I love you.” (Right)

Click here for more on quotation marks.

Save face! Avoid these poor punctuation habits to strengthen your writing skills and build your credibility as an Expert Author. What punctuation errors do you commonly see? Would you like further clarification on any English grammar guidelines? Let us know by sharing your comments and questions below – we’d love to hear from you!


Jean Kearsley writes:

I loved the illustration, but the point Rhonda Redhead made about the relative value of men who can or cannot use correct punctuation was somewhat spoiled by her second remark. The capitalization of the second “he” indicates the start of a second sentence, and makes everything which precedes it into a nonsensical sentence fragment.

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 11:21 AM


Kathleen Clohessy writes:

Huh???? There is no second “he.” And the second sentence, “Run, my friend.” AND the third sentence “Run.” are grammatically correct because the subject “you” is understood.

Now, as to the article, it was very good and pointed out the most common punctuation mistakes people make. My biggest bugaboo is always commas..where to put them in and when to leave them out. I could read a whole book on the subject and I would still probably get it wrong once in a while.


Jean Kearsley writes:

Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. I was referring to the second illustration, with only the redhead in it, which should have been captioned ‘If he writes, “I love you.” he’s a keeper.’



Now that you’ve clarified the issue, I have to agree that we messed up on that one. Thanks for calling it to our attention.



davidinnotts writes:

Easy to fix, Marc. Slap your graphics guy/gal on the wrist and get them to revise the caption in Photoshop. There will be a saved, editable file, surely?



It was fixed before you even posted this comment. ;-)



Jean Kearsley writes:

Marc ~

I liked the rewording you did on this one. This is one of those cases where that’s about the only way to achieve clarity. Otherwise, you wind up with a monstrosity like ‘If he writes, “I love you.”, he’s a keeper.’ Which still violates that apparently inviolable NA English rule of “commas inside quotes.”


CH James writes:

Overuse of ellipses is one of my biggest pet peeves, so I’m quite happy to see you’ve included it in this post.

I like to think of punctuation as a tool chest. You may have every tool in the world, but not everything you build requires you to use each of them. When you stick to using the right tools for the job, what you’ve built turns out so much better.

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 12:17 PM


Cheryl Veon writes:

Hello Penny,

Thanks for the tips. I’ll take them to heart! I probably get too carried away with !!! I just get so excited.

Thanks again,

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 12:32 PM


davidinnotts writes:

A nice article layout today, Penny. The use of colour helps a lot.

I take issue with the ‘period inside the quote rule, Penny, when the quote ends a longer sentence. Like this:

Kenny slammed out of the house, a classic “pouting adolescent”.

Should that period be inside or outside the quote? Usual North American practice is to always put it inside the quote, and the earlier article you point to at the end sort-of suggests this. It’s that way in most of the US newspaper style books, too. But elsewhere in the world, it depends on the prominence of the quote. If it’s a major part of the sentence, the punctuation goes inside; if it’s short, as above, it goes outside. We in the UK see this as a quick way to pick up a US origin for an article!

And that use of a colon to introduce a list? Dead right – unless the list has a separate line for each item, in which case the colon should be the last thing before the first item on its new line, like so:

Here are the best things to take with you on a hike:
Bottle of water,
Full set of waterproofs,
Cellphone – fully charged, and
An interesting companion!

Notice too, that the line-by-line list can (but doesn’t need to) begin each line with a capital and end each line with punctuation.

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 12:57 PM


Kory Kaai writes:

Great article Penny. Thank you for clearing this up for us. I really enjoy the newsletters I get from you, please keep them coming.

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 2:26 PM


James writes:

I’m sorry but I’m not sure on this one. I feel confident about my spelling but is “One of the most common errors is the dreaded apostrophe used to indicated possession in a pronominal possessive.” Supposed to be “indicate” instead of “indicated?”

Also – Did I put the question mark in the right place? I’ve heard it’s different for that.


Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 2:56 PM



You caught us on that one! You’ll note that it’s already been fixed. :-)



Rudee writes:

Great article as punctuation is so important and most of us misuse it. When you see it wrong you know it and then the trust level starts to diminish. My biggest problem was your last example of where punctuation goes within a quote. I will never forget that now. Thanks

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 4:13 PM


John Miller writes:

Thanks for that.

I’ve never been happy with my use of the comma and full stop either inside or outside quotes. Now I know.

I’m wracking my brains trying to think just how much grammar I learnt (or is that learned) at school. It couldn’t have been much, despite being cooped up for hours doing it.

‘True easy in writing’ surely comes from the application of the art – and today’s blog, not from the classroom.

Very helpful.


John Miller

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 4:39 PM


Randall Magwood writes:

The “apostrophe in pronominal possessives” always gets me. When it comes to “yours” vs “your’s”, I always get lost, and wind up going with the one that makes it easier for my visitor to read.

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 9:16 PM


davidinnotts writes:

I used to occasionally teach English, Randall, and I found that at 7th grade up, it always got most people. When they were younger, it was easier because they knew less about using English and they simply memorized what to do. So let me spend more words unpacking “apostrophe in pronominal possessives” than the article could do without boring everyone’s pants off!

English is probably the loosest of all the major world languages in its grammar. I was taught as a kid that English had strict grammar rules, like Latin, but that there were a lot of ‘irregular’ words which had to be memorized. While there’s something in this idea, the truth is that English has spent many centuries abandoning its grammar rules, tenses and special endings to words. Generally, basic words are now modified by adding a word to help, which is simpler.

The ‘pronoun’ is a hangover from the old Anglo-Saxon way of modifying words, but there are only a few of them and the way to use them is simple. Pronouns take the place of a noun. So, instead of calling myself ‘David’, I can call myself ‘me’. The others in this group of pronouns are you, thou, he, she, it; and the plurals we, you and they. You’ll have spotted which one has now been replaced by its plural, except in a lot of the UK, where local dialect still addresses people as ‘thou’ – but it’s usually pronounced ‘tha’ (as in “Tha’ll be away ta see thissen ho-um, nar, will tha’?” or similar.)

A possessive is where a word is changed to show ownership. This is now usually done by adding ‘apostrophe-s’. You can remember how to use it by thinking about what the apostrophe is there for: it’s put where something is missing – and this IS a major modern English grammar rule. So “Randell’s codpiece” is actually shortened from the old English expression “Randall, his codpiece.” Remember that and you’ll almost always get the possessive right (there are a few exceptions, of course – this IS English!)

So now to the nub of it: a possessive pronoun (which is, with the adjective, a pronominal possessive) is a pronoun used to replaces a possessive noun. The possessive versions of our pronoun list above is: I > my; thou > thine; he > his; she > hers; it > its; we > ours; you > yours; they > theirs. You just have to memorize these, because you’ll have noticed that they are irregular – there’s no pattern to them. But once you know them, the rule is simple: THERE’S NO APOSTROPHE because there was nothing missed out. Of course, the only ones that can cause confusion here are the four ending in an ‘s’.

Hope that clears it up – remember, it’s simple: memorize the pronouns, then remember that they don’t ever have an apostrophe.


Jean Reynolds writes:

There’s a simple fix, Randall: Think about the word “his.” No apostrophe, right? Think of yours, hers, theirs, and ours the same way. And the possessive of it – its – should be included there too. (“The dog licked its foot.”) No more confusion!


Randall Magwood writes:

Thanks David and Jean. The advice you both gave cleared things up for me. Will now apply in my new articles. Once again thanks.


Gracious Store writes:

Thank you for clarifying the use of the punctuation marks, sometimes I misuse commas in my writings.

Comment provided February 4, 2013 at 9:59 PM


Owen Jones writes:


My English teacher at 18 in school said that the easy way to remember how to deal with full stops and inverted commas was that a stop finishes a sentence and so it has to go outside the inverted commas otherwise the inverted commasare in the next sentence which is ludicrous.
Similarly with commas.
I think you are talking about American usage not real English

Comment provided February 5, 2013 at 1:19 AM



In this particular case, we are referring to both American and British English. I’m afraid your English teacher may have been incorrect. Sorry to be the bearer of the bad news.



Owen Jones writes:

I’m not so sure that you are right.
He did talk about American usage and there is no way that punctuation belongs in the following sentence.



Alas, such is the nature of English on both sides of the pond. In this case I believe we’ll have to agree to disagree. :-)



Owen Jones writes:

That’s fine by me :-)


davidinnotts writes:

Wrist slap, Owen! And gracious of Marc not to have picked up on it. All major variants of English have retained features which have dropped out of use or been altered in other usages. It’s a living language.

Such a pity, then, that pedants for the last 250 years have tried to regulate everyone else – and dismally failed, because the best writers have always gone their own ways.

The Writing Masters who wrote Grammars and forced them down the throats of their longsuffering pupils based their ideas on the premise that English is like Latin, so should follow the same grammatical rules (which, then, all educated people knew). It’s not, so it shouldn’t. In fact, the big bugbear of English spelling is that, as pronunciation has shifted over several centuries, spelling has followed only slowly, and often not at all. If we make spelling orthodox and phonetic, WHICH DIALECT DO WE FOLLOW? This was attempted just over 100 years ago in the UK and especially the US. It got almost nowhere, but did leave an inconsistent US legacy of partial rationalization. This is why the press Style Books are different than each other. After all, they were written for one purpose only – to get all writers for one publication to be consistent with each other. No more than that.

So I accept what the writers of all the great guides to English usage have done – allow that the language is changing, wait to see how it goes; and meanwhile write to be clear and concise. A lot of the mistakes and problems that Penny has been highlighting in this series are wrong because they confuse – and as authors, surely that’s the last thing any of us want to do to our potential customers?


Owen Jones writes:

It is irrelevant what we all think.

However, if someone is preaching to the masses, then I think that they should disclose their religion.

American English usage is NOT the same as what originated in the UK.

I travel a lot and mostly live in Asia – I here what asses for English every day.

Language is precious.
Let’s be specific.

I don’t care whether you want to invent new rules to American or Asian English, just don’t call it English.

Tell your flock what you are preaching.
Don’t confuse people.
Tell the truth.

You are not talking about English, only our version of it.



Owen Jones writes:

Sorry, my keyboard is no good.

‘asses’ should be passes and ‘our’ should be your.



Owen Jones writes:

And ‘here’should be hear.

And I should not be here now. :-)
I am too tired.



davidinnotts writes:

Owen, English English, as it’s usually known, is still a living language and in constant change. The Welsh, Scots and Irish are gracious to also use it, but it’s just one recognized style of the language today, and not even the most spoken by native users (that’s US English, pretty-well the same as Canadian English.) The third variant is Australian English, which is somewhat between the other two in choices of grammar, and also used in New Zealand.

English-speakers elsewhere choose to use one of these three standard variants; it usually depends on where their English examinations have their origin.

It’s simply not true that English is only the variant as used in one corner of the world (Home Counties England).


Jean Reynolds writes:

Owen, I suspect you’ve never taken a course in the history of English! “Real English,” if you’re talking about origins, looks like this: “Faeder ure, thu the eart in heofonum” (the beginning of the Lord’s prayer: “Our father, who art in heaven”). English has gone through many changes over the centuries, and in some cases usages that disappeared in England have lived on in the US. Read a good book about the history of our language. You’ll be fascinated.


Owen Jones writes:

You suspect wrong.

There is always someone who has to go to extremes, eh?
In this life, I am in my 58th year and speak and write the English of my time.

I have also studied six other languages to fluency am now struggling with my first Asian language.

Language, especially written is a code and it is easier if we respect certain rules.

They can change.

My point is for the writer of articles like this to say which version he is teaching.

American English.
It is not a problem, jt is just an omission on the writer’s behalf to say that.

In this millennium, not the one before last.


Owen Jones writes:

I should have thought that it was obvious that English comes from England as German comes from Germany.

Therefore, real English comes from England the American version comes from America et cetera.

It seems tautology to say British English – it is English.
From England, not South Africa, Australia nor America.

And I am not English, but fair’s fair.


Owen Jones writes:

Take a look at:

Typographical considerations

It’s about halfway down


Owen Jones writes:

No comment now, eh?

I was expecting any.

From the above website:


With regard to quotation marks adjacent to periods and commas, there are two styles of punctuation in widespread use. While these two styles are most commonly referred to as “American” and “British” and some style sheets provide no other names, some American writers and organizations use the “British” style and vice versa. Both systems have the same rules regarding question marks, exclamation points, colons and semicolons. They differ on the treatment of periods and commas”.

Read, learn and weep.


Owen Jones writes:

I give up on you then, Jean.

I said that you should state which system you are teaching.
You said that they’re all the same.

No, I give up read the posts again and learn something.
I’m unsubscribing.

You’re a bad loser.


Sujit Paul writes:

Excellent. Thanks for sharing. Sometimes I also make comma mistake. Need to aware of that. Much appreciated.

Comment provided February 5, 2013 at 1:39 AM



Nice tips… my grammar and my english is not good.
i will try to write good Punctuate in my article..

Comment provided February 5, 2013 at 2:14 AM



I have to agree with davidinnotts. This “end of quote ‘rule'” has bugged me for years.

It doesn’t take into account the two facts that the period punctuation mark is globally and universally recognized as the end of sentence statement.

The period is the world’s “Terminator”.

So why does the quotation mark get a hall pass to be the only mark allowed after the END of a sentence? Especially in circumstance where the end quote is not a part of the larger sentence structure?

Okay academics—get your tomatoes ready.

You said, “The period and the comma always go inside quotation marks.”

Of course this is what we’ve always seen and so it became a rule way back when the short man in the bright red shirt sat in the big Chairman/Editor chair at the end of the long table.

But there are several exceptions that really pop off the page when you see them.


The man jumped off of the building and everyone thought they heard him say something like, “On my terms”.

Here the period ends the entire sentence. That seems obvious. And in fact it is legit in every use of the period.

The period ends the statement.

It closes it.


The period universally (almost in all languages), signifies the end and completion of a statement. So what academician retiree from government service first made the rule that even though the period ends the statement, we can go ahead and add an end quote after it—outside of the official end of the statement.

Why is the end quote so special among all punctuation marks? Why does it alone get to be placed AFTER the punctuation that globally and universally is recognized as the END of a statement?

When a punctuation mark is part of a quote it should belong inside of the quote. But when it isn’t it shouldn’t.


As the man fell did he clearly say, “On my terms”?

In the above example, the question mark is 100% NOT a part of the element in quotes. If it is put inside of the quotes it looks like the man asked a question as he fell.

Did he say, “On my terms?”.

The same can be said of an exclamation point—where we want to know if he yelled it or only muttered it.

As the man fell did he yell, “On my terms!!!”?

What’s the rule for that one? How do we ask a question about a yell? And for those of you who loathe punctuation hyperbole…

As the man fell did he yell, “On my terms!”?

Look at all of the following examples. A few work with the rule and the others violate the “rule,” butt—they are logically correct once the world agrees that the period is the true end of a statement, quotation marks are not the Aryans they pretend to be, and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to stay stopped at a red light for five minutes in the middle of nowhere when there are not cars around–especially when you can’t see any of those black and white cars.

In dialogue…

In Orlando, Florida there are roads with toll booths that require exact change.

The lady in that meeting who asked, “Well, what if you don’t have the exact change?” is now working in private sector after being fired for incompetence.

“I got fired for incontinence once too”.

“No, Billy, ‘incon-PE-tence. It’s when somebody–”

“I know, I know–they don’t know geography”.


“They told me I didn’t know shit about islands, peninsulas, and–”

“Yeah, Billy. Your right – my mistake”.

– – –

In those examples everything seems to be where is should be. The existing period ending a sentence rule is flawed. Rather than a paving stone rule that everything goes inside of the quotation mark, the rule should recognize that there are situations where it ain’t logical. The quotation mark should go where it should go relative to the quote inside of it, and the content outside of it.

And please tell me why the second comma should NOT go where it is in this “zinger”:

The teacher said, “It’s not called the end of quote ‘rule'” [as many people dislike the name], “…it’s only accepted as a ‘standard'”.

And on the “absurd rules” topic, why does my spell checker say “dialogue” should be [the incomplete and chopped looking] “dialog”?

What about dialog’s long lost suffixual cousins epilogue, prologue, duologue, homologue, Decalogue, and ideologue?

I don’t want to catalogue [er, uhm—”catalog”] how language changes, but–

“Dialog”, pravda? That’s the rule now? Since when? Almost every book I read about writing uses “dialogue”.

So what about a monologue before a dialog in a coffee table travelogue that looks at the architecture of synagogues as an analogue to theistic structure? When there’s a conversation it’s “dialog,” but when only one person speaks it’s a “monologue”.

It seems the aforementioned Napoleonic pedagogue in the bright red shirt wants to be a grammar AND spelling, rule-setting pedagogue.

Just write. Write what’s right. But write what works as well.

“Cue ‘tomatoes'”:


Comment provided February 5, 2013 at 3:02 AM


Jean Kearsley writes:

My Compact Oxford Dictionary shows the “-logue” spelling for all the words you mentioned, with, e.g., “(US also catalog)” following them. I think your spell checker might be set on US English.


davidinnotts writes:

Just to stick in an oar here, I looked them up in my (1971) FULL Oxford dictionary (23 volumes) which is so big because it includes all traceable usages, with quotes going back as far as records can be found.

Dialogue is common in older usage (eg Shakespeare) and was accepted as correct in the 17th century; likewise catalogue, Decalogue, epilogue and prologue. But in all of these, replacing the ‘i’ with a ‘y’ and omitting the ‘u’ were commonplace before the 17th century and dictionaries, and there are many other variant spellings listed. Duologue (dualogue), homologue and ideologue appear to be 19th century coinage – there’s no record of earlier use.

In my comment on 11 above I explained how the US variants came about: it was simply that the movement towards ‘rationalization’ of English spelling which was popular somewhat over 100 years ago bore much more fruit west of the Pond than east. One consequence was the simplification of the ‘-gue’ ending to ‘-g’. There were attempts on many others, most of which were briefly popular in the UK as well as the US, but did not stick in the UK. Interestingly, the Oxford deprecates the ‘movement towards Frenchifying plain English’ which is exemplified by the 19th century British fashion for spelling the historic word ‘program’ as ‘programme’!

So I come back to what I said above, and was mentioned on British Radio 4 today: who decides what is ‘proper’ English? I. for one. will not be constrained by grammar books (even modern ones) which follow the false premises of the 18th century ‘Grammar Masters’ (puffed up Latin teachers with no academic qualifications) who made up rules from fresh air and expected their pupils to accept them whole. This is where the ‘split infinitive’ debate began, which still continues despite the admonitions of the great grammarians that a useful rule of thumb for beginners ought not be a straitjacket for practised writers.

Let common sense rule!

PS: begin, AnotherOpus dot com and Owen, by reading Bill Bryson’s excellent book “Mother Tongue” to get an overview of all this before you dig deeper. And remember that Bryson isn’t simply a comic travel writer; he also wrote two style books and a dictionary and is a respected grammarian.


T.J. writes:


I am wondering about the word (got) personally
I find it both annoying and redundat, mostly when it is used in connection with the word (have). I may be wrong but doesn’t this just sound stupid to you when you read this: “We have got milk.” Shouldn’t it read, “We have milk.”

Comment provided February 5, 2013 at 9:22 AM


Jean Kearsley writes:

I agree that the use of the word is an annoying redundancy, at least when used to indicate possession of enough cow juice to eke out the week. However, if my lady and I are shopping, and she’s asking me if we’ve already crossed the white stuff off the ‘to buy’ list, I might well say “we have gotten milk” in answer (we Yanks still use that distinct past participle “gotten,” rather than “got”).


davidinnotts writes:

You’re right, T.J. ‘Got’ is generally used in a woolly way – and I did it; I confess. But it’s still fine when you’re casual, I think, even if it’s tautological!


Sujit Paul writes:

Sometimes I make some mistakes, is there anywhere I can check whether its passed or not. But this this article helpful.

Comment provided February 6, 2013 at 11:29 PM



These errors are very difficult for grammar checking software to catch. The best way to manage them is to understand the pitfalls, remember them, and try to write accordingly.



Sujit Paul writes:

Thanks for your reply Marc.

Yes, I understand, its quite hard to grammar checking for a software. One of my friend suggests to use for checking.

Do you think it can be helpful to identify the mistakes? doesn’t accept poor quality of articles. I know quality and unique content is important. Sometimes articles doesn’t not published due to some small mistakes which are overlooked. What’s the best way to recover this kind of issues?

Your help and suggestions much appreciated.

Many thanks
Sujit Paul



I’ll have our Member Support Team contact you directly via email. They can help you understand why your articles aren’t being published an how to improve any issues you might be having.



Sujit Paul writes:

Thanks Marc. Much appreciated.

Sujit Paul


Jean Reynolds writes:

Owen: You didn’t mean to say “real English,” as opposed to “American English”?

Comment provided February 7, 2013 at 6:36 AM


Jean Reynolds writes:

Uh – way oversimplified, Owen. American English came from England. Over the centuries, the language changed in both places. Interestingly, some authentic English practices disappeared in the British Isles but lived on in the US. For example, you can still hear some Chaucerian usages in American speech. I hope you’ll read a book about the history of English, Owen. You’ll be fascinated!

Comment provided February 7, 2013 at 7:41 AM


Jean Reynolds writes:

I don’t understand what point you’re making, Owen. Quotation marks have evolved differently in the US and Britain. That fits what I said earlier. (Old English didn’t have quotation marks!).

Comment provided February 8, 2013 at 6:13 AM


Jean Reynolds writes:

I didn’t understand, Owen. Sorry. I teach in the US, so I teach the US systems (periods and commas always inside).

Comment provided February 8, 2013 at 8:52 AM


Vincent E Martinelli writes:

Regarding the “comma splice” paragraph: How can “the wombat” become “they”? “Wombats” (plural) become “they”, and “wombat” (singular) becomes “it” or “he” or “she”. Therefore, “The wombat looks like a small bear; it may appear friendly, but it can be a vicious creature.” or “Wombats look like small bears; they may appear friendly, but they can be vicious creatures.”

Plurals seem to be the singular peeve of mine. Disappointingly, especially in military documentaries, the concept often gets lost. For instance, it is ever-common in such films to hear “The legion go to war” or “The army head up the mountain”. The legion is a group, and as such is singular; therefore, “The legion goes to war”. Similarly, “The army heads up the mountain”.

Back on topic, I believe that my punctuation, although demonstrating technical exceptions, is correct throughout.

Comment provided February 8, 2013 at 7:46 PM


davidinnotts writes:

Vincent, this ‘wombat’ sentence has a semi-colon, which splits it into two clauses. So it’s permissible to change from singular to plural for the second clause. It’s fine as long as it’s done consistently and grammatically in each clause.

I agree with your Plurals point, but I’ve found one exception which Microsoft’s Word grammar checker throws up to consider altering: the word ‘staff’. I don’t know about elsewhere, but in British English ‘staff’ can be a kind of stick or a group of people working for an organization. And the group, irregularly, is usually treated as a collection of individuals, not a single entity like a ‘company’.

So we’re happy in the UK to say, “The staff are going to lunch.” Saying “The staff is going to lunch.” brings in mind a walking stick, rather than walking people!


Jean Kearsley writes:

David ~

In American English also, it’s as common as not to see “staff” treated as a plural when used to mean the collective of individuals who work in one location, or for one business entity. No problem.

The people who set my teeth on edge are those who insist on using “staff” — rather than, say, “staff member” — as the approved term for an individual member of that group. That logic leads to the further lunacy of deriving a plural form of “staffs.” Then, instead of saying, for example, “Staff are [or “Our staff is…”] expected to follow the procedures laid out in our Customer Relations manual, whenever dealing with members of the public,” you get an abomination like “Staffs are expected to…”

This leads to the loopy, though logical, conclusion that “staffs” equals “a staff” — sort of a grammatical equvalent of “2 = 1”.

Arrggh! Whenever I encounter an example of this usage, I get a mental echo of my bygone days in Basic Training for the US Army, where it was quite common to hear a drill sargeant bellow out, “All right, all you mens, listen up!”


davidinnotts writes:

Right on, Jean! Don’t we generally use ‘staffer’ for ‘staff member’? I do use this occasionally, although I feel that’s it’s a bit over-casual, even maybe disrespectful. And I have been ‘on staff’ in American organizations where it was used consistently by some leaders. ‘A staff’ is good English, referring to the complete group as an entity: it’s that ‘group as a collection of individuals as well as a unit’ fuzziness that allows the two distinct usages, but also allows subtleties of meaning – and irony!


Max Eames writes:

Hi Penny

Thanks for this. I’ve written in to point this out before. I grew up in the USA but had to learn what would best be described as “British English” as opposed to “American English”. What I have just written is a case in point: when I first moved to the UK the secretaries would reject my letters. This post includes two examples of “British English”: you don’t by any means always put the punctuation inside the quotation marks; you don’t capitalise the first word after a colon (i’ve done it twice above in the correct way for the UK); you’ve got a few more to master as well. It’s so confusing. I think the US conventions for punctuation are far simpler and more consistent, but there you go… you say tomato; I say tomato! I thought it was worth pointing this out, as I always struggle with the — sometimes subtle — difference.

Comment provided February 20, 2013 at 6:52 AM


Michael writes:

The “rule” about periods and commas always going inside the quotation marks is true only for Standard American English (SAE). For British English writers, the rule for those two punctuation marks is the same as for all others: they go inside the quotation marks if only if they specifically punctuate the word, phrase, or clause in side the quotation marks.

Comment provided April 6, 2013 at 10:21 AM


Leanne Alder writes:

“I love you.” (Right) This is interesting because I only looked this up yesterday. It seems that this is not the case in UK English. I get confused often because I write a NZ newsletter which definitely follows UK English whereas Australian grammar takes into account English US and UK grammar. It’s so confusing.

Comment provided June 13, 2013 at 4:17 AM


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