Punctuation That Even Teachers Slip Up On

We all know that sentences must end with a period and that apostrophes do not aid us in making plural nouns. Such knowledge, however, does not imply our punctuation is always perfect. As English language teachers, we are most likely more accurate than the average English speaker, but we can certainly fall prey to inattentiveness and just plain old doubt. Even for teachers, there is some confusion when it comes to:

·         Using or omitting commas with appositives.  Do not use commas with restrictive appositives. Examples:  The educational publisher Pearson Longman is always well represented at the annual TESOL convention.  (The appositive gives essential information. It identifies who the publisher is.) / This blog, a resource for ESL teachers, is sponsored by Pearson Longman. (It is not necessary to include the appositive.)

·         Deciding to capitalize the first word after a colon. Not all writer’s manuals agree, but it’s safe to always capitalize an independent clause following a colon. If, however, a colon introduces a series or a phrase, capitalization is not necessary unless that first word is a proper noun. Examples: Technology has a growing role in education: It is no longer limited to being a supplement or enhancement of traditional instruction, but rather it is shaping new forms of instruction such as webinars. / One amazing tool has allowed me to stay professionally active over the past three years: the Internet.

·         Using a dash. Often a colon, comma(s), or parentheses would serve us better than a dash. It seems dashes are inserted far more often in informal writing. Most manuals see the nature of the dash as abrupt. It can mark a change in the line of thinking or interject a comment. Example: I enjoy hearing from my YouTube viewers – all 13 thousand of them! – but I can’t respond to each and every message.

·         Hyphenating compound words. Sometimes there is a choice as in co-worker/ coworker. Creative compounds take away that choice: a sweet-as-honey voice. It’s easy to forget the first hyphen when there are two hyphenated compounds together, so observe: I like to teach 50- or 90-minute lessons.

·         Putting punctuation inside or outside the end quotation mark. Most sources in the US say to place periods and commas within quotation marks. Call me rebellious then because I follow the UK practice of placing periods and commas outside the quotation marks if they refer to the whole sentence. Examples: (US) It’s better to talk about grammar that is “challenging” rather than “difficult.”/ (UK – and Jennifer!) It’s better to talk about grammar that is “challenging” rather than “difficult”.

To help you provide the best writing model you can for your students, I’d suggest you note one or two websites with clearly stated explanations on punctuation and/ or purchase a copy of a good writer’s reference manual.

Online resources:

Offline resource: 


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Well, as I continue my career in materials writing within the U.S., I admit I see the need to conform. In more recent years, I’ve been using the more common practice of placing punctuation within quotation marks. 🙂

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