On hyPeR-commas and misused colons

I remember reading notes my kids would bring home from school. The notes would often contain misspellings and poor punctuation. Sadly, these were the notes written to parents–by teachers.

This is why I worry about my students.  From freshmen to seniors, many have challenges writing well.  I believe the problem stems from being taught by teachers with just so-so abilities at written English; these students also suffer from a general lack of reading.

I’m quick to point out when students write with what I call “hyper-commas” (too many commas where they don’t belong), or not enough commas, or misused colons and semi-colons, or lower case proper nouns, or periods outside the quotation marks.  I cringe when I see “it’s” or “there” when it should read “its” or “their.” Run-on sentences tend to make me crazy because they often go on for four lines and repeat the same words and don’t include commas or semi-colons when they could just have easily been broken up into two shorter sentences instead of one long one that seems to go on forever.

The reason I’m somewhat merciless on this subject is because I truly care about the future of these students as PR professionals.  Bad spelling and punctuation in a press release mean a quick trip to the garbage pail and probably the unemployment line.  But I’m seeing it in their work too frequently, so I worry and correct and make a pest of myself.

A poor writer can become a good writer and a good writer can become a great writer.  But it doesn’t happen by itself.  It takes reading and writing and proofing and more reading.  It takes checking the AP Style Guide and Strunk’s “The Elements of Style” as you write.  It takes a desire to be better, because when you’re competing for that PR job, you’re writing samples have to stand above the dozens of samples you’ll be up against (Oh, and find the usage mistake in this last sentence!).

OK, today’s lecture is over.  For some writing tips, click on the picture above which was taken at my conference for nonprofit PR last week, and then live by those rules.  To work among professional communicators,  good writing is going to be the difference between success and failure.  Your thoughts?

19 thoughts on “On hyPeR-commas and misused colons

  1. publicrelationspro

    I agree that it is essential for not just public relations practitioners, but for any business this day in age to be precise with their grammar and punctuation. Without paying careful attention, errors like typos and bad grammar can cost you money, whether it is from a potential client, or losing credibility. I also agree that the reason that student’s grammar and understanding of the english language stems from not being taught properly. I have always said that “if they want us to learn a second language, they had better teach us english better first.”

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  2. Kerry Kiddoo

    I couldn’t agree more with what Professor Morosoff said. He is absolutely right; more emphasis needs to be put on our writing capabilities and our understanding of seemingly simple grammatical functions. I was in the same class as Taylor in which our teacher gave us spelling tests. This might seem ridiculous, to have spelling tests on the 4th-7th grade level in college, but barely anyone in this class got 100s on them. I do not consider myself a great or even good writer. I have to constantly as my mom, who was a journalism major, if I’m doing something write or to edit my work. She has sit down with me numerous times to improve my writing abilities. For that, I am extremely grateful, especially because our PR field amplifies writing ability. Maybe we should take more English classes. Maybe there should be grammar, writing, spelling, or even comma classes in college.

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  3. Taylor Albright

    This is something that I haven’t heard enough throughout my four years here at Hofstra. I have had so many teachers who care so much about this same topic and grade heavily on it as well. I actually got to a class where I had spelling tests! Yes, in college I was having spelling tests, but the crazy thing was, not everyone was getting 100’s on them! This really made me believe how important it is to be able to spell correctly. Press releases are things that go out to a lot of people and if there are spelling errors on them, no one will take it seriously. It was just like we talked about in our class the other night, even on resume’s or cover letters, if there is one thing wrong on that piece of paper, they will get pushed to the denied pile. Spelling IS very important!

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  4. passportstories

    Unfortunately, many people in today’s society lack the writing and reading skills in order to be successful. I have to admit that my grammar and spelling in Spanish is better than my grammar and spelling skills in English. This has nothing to do with my ability to speak Spanish. I never was taught some of the most important rules in the English language. In my Spanish classes, we spend months tediously dissecting sentences, words and tenses to understand why the sentence is written that way. It really is sad and I wish that I had learned English grammar and spelling skills in school before college. I also wish that PR majors were forced to take a English grammar class in order to graduate because 103 is simply not enough. We just took spelling and grammar tests, but never learned the concepts. I think these skills are too important to be brushed aside, especially in the field of PR. Great post!

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  5. Michelle S

    I will be one to admit that I do need to proofread more frequently as I am doing my work, and that sometimes when I am in a rush I forget to check the it’s and its, commas, and quote marks. I think it also may be from what I learned and what I have forgotten. We learned in elementary school spelling and grammar, and slightly touched on it in middle school. Once in 9th grade we had spelling tests, but after that it was all assumed that we knew the differences on when to use each there, their, they’re and it’s its and that’s why it was never reviewed as we got older. I definitely wish that I had a class to review all of these things because I do forget where to put quote marks with punctuation (although I am improving and remembering now), but I wish i had gotten a review session again once I hit college.

    However I do find it funny that on my boyfriend’s papers I am able to catch his spelling and grammar mistakes sometimes quicker than my own. He is someone like myself who could use a review session on when to use each. It’s because of the tech era with texting abbreviations and using social media with 140 characters or less. People forget the basics of spelling and grammar because they’re so used to saying R U going to the mall and use that mindset when typing homework or essays. We need to refresh on these skills that we are taught when we are younger otherwise there will be a lot of poor writers in the future.

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  6. Tha L. Spot

    I agree. Personally, for awhile, I have been confused on how particular punctuation marks should be used. For many years, I would get red marks on my papers because of wrong usage but I was taught to use it in those ways. Each teacher I had had different rules on how to use them so I was confused. After all these years it wasn’t until I came to Hofstra that I learned to use them correctly, at least I hope. I created my blog site Tha L. Spot to improve my writing skills. I realized if I wrote constantly then the better I would become. I believe I am a better writer than before. Now I like to copy write other people’s work because it gives me a chance to practice.

    On another note, sometimes students don’t write well because they are rushing it. This semester my poetry professor suggested I should go to the writing center because of grammar and punctuation. I laughed because I knew I didn’t need it. I was rushing the work and didn’t proof read it. But I did question myself if I needed it so I looked at one of my papers from my English class (I’m an English minor) and there were no grammar or punctuation issues.

    My challenge is to make sure as I’m writing I correct my errors so that if I don’t proof read it I won’t have any grammar or punctuation issues.

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  7. jackiezupo

    Since becoming a PR major I have tried hard to improve my grammar. Although it isn’t perfect I still try and I think that’s important. I think everyone should care more about how they write. One of my biggest pet peeves is the misuse of there, their and they’re. And when I catch myself making the mistake I immediately freak out. Nobody is perfect and I think it is important to try and be aware of grammatical errors.

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  8. Jenny Zheng

    At the beginning of the semester you gave us an article about a man that would not hire someone with bad grammar. Employers like that do exist, and a good impression means everything when you are trying to find a job. If you are careless about the way you write, then what kind of impression are you giving to an employer about your work ethic?

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  9. jsuare4

    When I got to college, some professors would take points off for grammatical errors on assignments, including tests. Over time my writing improved with less grammatical errors since each assignment I would be careful to not misuse commas or have run on sentences.
    There have been times when I’ve emailed PR professionals and have had emails with errors in them. A lot of the time it was because they were sending replies from their phones and didnt bother to check, so I would simply overlook the issue, but issues like these still occur.

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  10. rebecca wolfe

    I also highly agree with you on the importance of grammar. It changes the whole sound of the sentence when there is incorrect use of words, especially when the reader has good grammar. To read “their” when its supposed to be “they’re” makes the sentence not flow correctly, and is very annoying to read! With social media rising, it seems people care less and less about grammar in their writing, but i still agree with you in it’s importance. It just makes the writing sound more official and educated!

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  11. Lauren Someck

    I completely agree with the importance of good grammar. Up until last spring semester I never thought about how often students misuse grammar, spelling and basic writing skills. I took PR 103 with Professor Frisina and the whole semester we concentrated on basic spelling and practicing standard grammar. Taking “simple” spelling tests that are used in third grade classes were surprisingly difficult. Now a days we rely heavily on technology to fix our mistakes. In addition, we have included text lingo into our conversations that often appear in our academic papers. What I took from that class is that spelling is one of the most important foundations of writing, and it is very vital to master this skill. During that semester i became so conscious of my spelling within all my classes and even outside of school. I realized I was actually a terrible speller. It was a great class and i believe it taught everyone how important basic spelling and grammar is, especially within public relations. What I learned from my own experience is that if there is an important piece you are writing you should always have more than one other person edit your piece. (It’s been awhile since I was in this class so I’m sure there are many spelling/grammar mistakes in this post! 🙁 )

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  12. Chloe Lambros

    I agree that the issue many students have in being able to write well stems from “being taught by teachers with just so-so abilities at written English; these students also suffer from a general lack of reading.” However, we cannot just blame the teachers, we also have to look at the fact that editing is not taken as seriously as it should, and many students do not follow through with this.

    I believe that the ability to write well is not something that is perfected over night. It is done with time, consistency, and patience. When it comes to a career, many over look the importance of spelling/grammar, but it is an essential element.

    For me, my problem was always putting to many commas. I loved commas, I used to place them everywhere! I never had much of an issue with the “its” vs. “it’s” or the “their” vs. “there.” I was just a comma crazy kid. Eventually, I grew out of that bad habit and my writing skills and abilities grew over time. it’s thanks to professors like you and Professor Frisinia that I have the ability to write well and to make me realize the common mistakes I tend to make in my work. I thank you because you are pushing me to be a better writer at the most critical stage in my life/career as a PR professional.

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  13. Amanda Brennan

    Well, with leaving this comment I’m sitting here tying to make sure my grammar, and vocabulary, are within par. I agree with you on the whole “there, their , they’re situation” and I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi when it comes to Facebook and other social media outlets. I don’t think the ability to write in a coherent fashion will diminish, but boy, if spell-check weren’t around…we would all be screwed.

    I agree with Lauren on the issue of dwindling ability to write well stemming from a lack of direction in high school. They were supposed to prepare us for college, right? I hate to say it but, those grammar and spelling books we received in elementary school were the best things that anyone could have done for us. Realistically, those books should have continues up until our college years, but back when we were in elementary school, our teachers still thought that teaching us cursive was going to be a necessity in high school.

    Times have changed, so has the ability to write correctly, but we need professors to be tough on our writing. I just wish it were done in a fashion where our grades weren’t so negatively affected due to it. No one “grades” us in real life, you just get it right, or completely wrong, there are no second chances. It’s more or less a bittersweet process.

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  14. Nicole Risell

    I started being hyper-attentive to grammar freshmen year of college when I got a job editing papers at my school’s writing center. It made me really pay attention to punctuation and other important grammar elements and that job has made me the writer I am today. I even go so far as to make it a point to use proper grammar and sentence structure on social media sites. Whether it is in the professional world or in the college classroom, our writing is always being critiqued and brushing up on grammar and syntax is always a good idea, especially in the PR world.

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  15. brittanywalsh

    I don’t think grammar is stressed enough in school. In my experience, i find that teacher’s are willing to overlook grammar mistakes and grade papers entirely on content. While that has helped many us to get much better grades than we probably should have, in the long run, i think we’ve missed out on valuable learning opportunities. If you mistake is never acknowledged, how are you supposed to learn from it?

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  16. Lauren Ciuzio

    The opening sentence made me laugh. Whenever I email a professor, I check what I wrote several times and hope that the grammar is correct. I never use abbreviations. However, there have been times where I receive an email back, with tons of grammatical errors and abbreviations. I can admit 100% that my writing skills are far from perfect, but I think a professor should know how to use grammar, and at least set the proper example through an email.

    I believe my writing skills were poorly developed in high school. We never had a class specifically for grammar, and all of the AP classes I was in were taken as a joke. I also blame technology. I am constantly on the Internet, and texting using incorrect grammar and abbreviations all day long.

    Thankfully, I’m taking a grammar class this semester. It’s challenging, but it is really helping me. I think it should be mandatory for a grammar class to be taught in high school, because these skills should be learned as early as possible, so you can polish up on them in college.

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  17. Nicole Chiarella

    I always had an issue with comma usage it was always annoying to figure out where to place them. I do try to make sure I look over my writing especially when spell check does not pick up on the “there, they’re and theirs”. I have caught myself putting the wrong tense and catching it before I made the horrific mistake once again. I have taken many writing classes and I find that it has helped me to improve my writing but not to its full potential. I think it is important to learn grammar well when we are at a young age and it is continued throughout school instead of just one lesson and it is over. There will always be more to know and learn. We do not always retain all the information at first, it takes several times of hearing or seeing it for it to sink in. I think it is good that you are harsh about grammar even though we may be frustrated with all your marks. We can only learn more and should advantage of all opportunities while we can.

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  18. Leia Schultz

    I share your sentiments about the importance of good grammar. I really enjoying editing (my own work and my friends’) and I consider myself a bit of a stickler when it comes to structuring sentences and writing well-developed pieces. Being able to express a written message with flawless grammar and compelling sentences is a skillset that takes practice, so although some might consider editing to be tedious it is a practice that must be respected when pen is put to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

    The ability to write well is something that needs to be taught critically, so thank you for making a “pest” of yourself when you grade! Learning how to write with proper grammar is an invaluable skill in public relations, and you hit the mark when you say that “good writing is going to be the difference between success and failure.”

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