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The Commonest Punctuation Error of 2008

Of all the punctuation errors I saw this year, the most prevalent offender was this one:

Thanks Lynn.
Happy holidays Lynn!
Okay Lynn!

Sorry to use my name so often, but the error involves direct address, that is, writers addressing the reader directly (in my case, Lynn). That use requires a comma, as in these examples:

Thanks, Lynn.
Happy holidays, Lynn!
Okay, Lynn!

If you don't want to be guilty of making the commonest punctuation error of 2008, just insert a comma whenever you use your reader's name in a sentence. (Yes, the examples above are sentences.) Here are more examples:

Thanks for your help, Ruth.
It was a pleasure to meet you, Sandhya.
Dr. Watts, your husband stopped by.

Microsoft's grammar and spelling checker does not catch these errors, but you can, using your human flexible intelligence. Just use a comma to set off the reader's name. Or use two commas if the reader's name comes in the middle of the sentence:

Thank you, Nikki, for purchasing our latest guide.
I'm writing to you, Grace, to apologize for my error.

As I am writing this blog post, a cc'd email just landed in my inbox. It says:

Thanks for your call last week Michael, saying that you received payment.

Did you recognize the error? Yes, you guessed it. The sentence needs a comma before Michael's name.

You can avoid that comma error. Reader, I know you can.

Happy 2009!

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “The Commonest Punctuation Error of 2008”

  • No, it’s not apposition. Here’s an example of apposition:
    “Bob Brown, the custodian, lives in the building.”

    In that sentence, I am writing about Bob–not to him.

    In direct address, we write TO the reader:
    “Bob, I just learned that you live in the building.”

    Make sense?

  • Thanks, Lynn. The sentence is so much easier to read with the comma and sets apart the person’s name.

    I hope you had a great holiday season and all the best in 2009.


  • Commonest punctuation error of 2008? Surely not, for that dubious honour must be bestowed on the use, or misuse, of the humble apostrophe.

    Recently, one of my clients organised an event for Southend council, the local government authority in his region. The wording for the advertising material was checked by numerous official departments to ensure it was factually accurate, politically correct and didn’t offend any religious minorities. Thousands of flyers and posters were printed, then distributed throughout the area.

    The text read: “Launching 31st October, Southends Weekly Over 30s Night.”

  • Hi, Stuart. Your example is wonderful. I love the list of reviewers, none of whom included a writing expert. Too bad that mistake slipped by your client. I would also recommend hyphenating “Over 30s” for clarity.

    I still have to crown the missing direct-address comma as the commonest error. I come across it in email and on discussion boards several times each day! The apostrophe error shows up regularly in my reading, but not nearly as often as the missing comma.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • It’s good to know that some basic misunderstandings of English punctuation transcend the Atlantic. I don’t consider it a coincidence that Stuart considers the apostrophe more abused; after all, they’re obviously cousins, at least graphically (though your font selection may disguise this). Your explanation was clear and avoided the technical terminology that tends to confuse more than it educates. Well done.

Comments are closed.