Punctuation: Possessives, Contractions and Commas

The improper use of possessives versus contractions is a common mistake in business writing. One simple rule of thumb is that a word contracted, such as it’s, they’re, you’re and who’s, indicates a shortened form of a verb action – it is, they are, you are and who is. If there is no contraction, such as its, their, your and whose, this indicates a possessive use.

Incorrect Example: The pharmaceutical industry had it’s day in court (should be “its”)

Incorrect Example: Whose responsible for the office break-in? (should be “who’s”)

Incorrect Example: Your welcome for the good deed! (should be “you’re”)

Incorrect Example: Are they going to take responsibility for they’re actions? (should be “their”)

Poor Punctuation

For many writers, punctuation is a source of confusion, particularly commas, semi-colons, colons and dashes. When and how should these be used?

(i) A comma is used to add clarity to a sentence and signal a pause.

Incorrect Example: She was frightened when he kissed her and fainted. (Without a comma, we don’t know the sequence or who fainted)

Correct Example: She was frightened when he kissed her, and fainted.

Incorrect Example: When frustrated thieves tend to steal.

Correct Example: When frustrated, thieves tend to steal.

There are other examples of situations that require a comma.

Nonrestrictive sentences: Some products, such as anti-inflammatory medications, concern regulators.

Introductory words/phrases: During that period, the company posted a large profit.

Clauses joined by “but”: He wanted to reach the salesperson, but could not find the number.

For adjective lists: He drove a red, shiny and fast car.

(ii) Semi-colons signal a distinct pause in the sentence, more so than commas. They can also link a main clause with a subordinate clause. Semi-colons should also be used when a list or pattern follows a colon.

Example: Not all automobile companies make a profit; not all firms post a loss.

Example: Look in the pages of the report; you will see the statistics there.

Example: There are three key factors in settling a medical claim:

– respect for the patient;

– communication with the doctor; and

– support for the family.

(iii) The colon has four main uses in business writing:

To introduce a listing (as example above)

Introduction of a business letter: Dear Mr. Smith:

For a long quotation: This was part of the letter we received from a claimant:

To introduce an explanation: You ask the reason for higher prices: a shortage of suppliers.

(iv) The dash, or em-dash, is a close cousin of the colon. Either can be used in most situations. The dash usually offers an explanation or adds information. It tends to have an abrupt effect on sentences and should not be over-used.

Example: Kevin found what he needed – a product that was effective for patients.


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