Four Common Punctuation Errors in Academic Essays

Imagine a text written without the periods, commas, and colons. It would certainly be difficult to read. In academic writing, an author may be easily misunderstood when ambiguous sentences are used. Punctuation marks mainly serve the purpose to disambiguate sentences. For example, the mere omission of a comma in a sentence can communicate an interpretation different from the author’s intended message. This is the reason why an editor or proofreader intently looks out for punctuation errors when editing or proofreading academic essays. Inasmuch as the essence of punctuation marks in writing, especially academic essays, cannot be overemphasized, the appropriate use of these marks is even more critical. Due to the similarity among the punctuation marks in English writing, many tend to use some marks interchangeably.

Below, find four of such punctuation errors that editors and proofreaders usually encounter when editing or proofreading academic essays and manuscripts.

The punctuation errors of using colon (:) and semi-colon (;)

These two punctuation marks are similar; they are both combinations of the period and comma. In using these punctuation marks, the type of language, whether American or British English, should be considered. However, apart from the subtleties based on language, the colon mostly follows a complete sentence before introducing a list of items, an explanation, or a quotation. The semi-colon joins two independent clauses when the second clause elaborates the first. In most cases, when these punctuation marks are used erroneously, the semi-colon is used to precede a list of items. For example:

Incorrect: She bought these items; grocery and stationery.

This is a punctuation error because the phrase after the semi-colon is not an independent clause. Rather, the appropriate use should be:

Correct: She bought these items: grocery and stationery.

However, whenever an author uses these two punctuation marks, he/she should capitalize the first letter of the proceeding word, except in instances where the first word is a proper noun.

The punctuation errors of using single quotes (‘ ‘) and double quotes (“ “)

Using quotation marks is probably the most debated among all punctuation marks. The usage of single or double quotes is predominantly dependent on the preferred type of English in your text. For American English, double quotes are used consistently for all conditions where quotation marks may be needed, whereas British English prefers single quotes. Therefore, the author should be conscious of the language to make the correct use of both punctuation marks.

In American English, single quotation marks should be used to enclose a quotation within a quotation and inside quotation marks should be used to place periods and commas.

In British English, single quotation marks should be used to enclose a quotation and double quotation marks should be used to enclose a quotation within a quotation. Also, outside quotation marks are used to place periods and commas.

American English: He said softly, “I have a headache.” British English: He said softly, ‘I have a headache’.

Did you notice the position of the period in both sentences?

The punctuation errors of using hyphens (-) and en dashes (-)

These two punctuation marks seem to be the same, but a closer look at them reveals that they differ by length. Hyphens are shorter than en dashes (width of an N). This difference is also implied in their usage, and thus they cannot be used interchangeably. Hyphens join related words (e.g. wide-eyed), whereas en dashes indicate ranges. The most encountered punctuation error relating to the use of both punctuation marks in academic writing is the use of a hyphen to replace the en dash in writing ranges between numbers, days, or months. For example:

Incorrect: 95% CI= 0.5234–1.7232; Monday-Friday Correct: 95% CI = 0.5234–1.7232; Monday — Friday

To insert an en dash, hold the Ctrl key and press the minus key on the numbers keypad. In Microsoft Word, the hyphen automatically changes to en dash, if spaces are inserted between the items being indicated in the range.

The punctuation errors of using comma (,) and semi-colon (;)

One of the common punctuation errors in academic writing is the confusion in the use of comma and semi-colon. A comma separates items in a list but does not distinguish two independent sentences from each other. For example:

Smith had never ridden on the back of a camel, he tried out of curiosity.

A semi-colon is a correct punctuation mark to use in place of the comma because both clauses are independent, with the second clause providing an explanation for the first. A comma is only appropriate in this instance if the conjunction follows the comma. In which case, there would not be a need for a semi-colon.

Correct: Smith had never ridden on the back of a camel; he tried out of curiosity.


Correct: Smith had never ridden on the back of a camel, so he tried out of curiosity.

The usage of punctuation marks differs mostly on the premise of whether the text is written with British or American English. Generally, the aforementioned punctuation errors are very glaring in a text and should be avoided as much as possible. These errors, as have been discussed, are not exhaustive. Therefore, professionals at Best Edit & Proof may be more adept at picking out similar errors that are usually overlooked.

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Originally published at on August 21, 2020. | English Editing Proofreading & Dissertation Services | Choosing our service will take the stress out of your academic life.

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