Learn the rules once and use punctuation correctly forever.
Experts will recommend that when you sit down to write, just keep going and don’t worry about grammar or getting punctuation correct in your memoir. That’s good advice. You want the ideas to flow out of you without roadblocks that interrupt you when you’re on a good writing roll.
But that freedom at the beginning doesn’t mean you can neglect the mechanics as you polish your writing. When you go back and read what you’ve written, the editing begins, and you may find that you’re not sure about how to use commas, apostrophes and semicolons. So let’s review. I’ll try really hard to use plain English and not throw in a lot of esoteric grammatical terms.
There are so many uses of commas, and some are a matter of taste and even custom of the particular English-speaking country. I won’t list every reason to use a comma, but here are the comma’s biggest hits.
Insert a comma between two independent clauses that could be complete sentences themselves but instead are joined by a conjunction. How do you know whether they’re complete sentences? Each has a subject and a verb.
She’s writing a memoir, and she hopes to publish it traditionally through a book publishing company. Each side of that comma could be a complete sentence.
When you delete the second subject “she,” you no longer have two independent clauses and, therefore, no longer use the comma.
She’s writing a memoir and hopes to publish it traditionally through a book publishing company.
Whether you use a comma in a series is up to you. That “Oxford” or “serial” comma goes in and out of fashion. Currently, it’s in fashion.
He’s writing three books—a memoir, a novel, and a guidebook.
I’ll get a little off-topic to mention that a modern way of presenting a series lets you drop the conjunction and.
He’s writing three books—a memoir, a novel, a guidebook—and hopes to finish all of them this year.
Use a comma after a prepositional phrase that comes at the beginning of a sentence.
Before you sit down to write your memoir, make sure you have a comfortable chair and enough time to really focus.
Now I will inject a grammatical term—nonrestrictive parentheticals. That just means words that interrupt a sentence to add a fact. Since they can be deleted without changing the sentence, it makes sense that you would set off nonrestrictive parentheticals with commas.
My friend and colleague, Joe Shmo, is writing a memoir.
My friend Joe, the brother of my former coworker, is writing a memoir.
The abuse of the apostrophe is well-documented, mostly in social media memes. Apostrophes are used for only two things—in the place of missing letters, which occurs in a contraction, and to indicate possession. The contraction use is the easier of the two, occurring in common words like can’t, weren’t, they’ll, you’d and I’m to shorten cannot, were not, they will, has not and I am. Common occurrences of the contraction apostrophe take the place of the i in is and the ha in has, as in:
She’s planning to throw a party when her brother’s in town, because she’s wanted her friends to meet him.
Possessives give people more trouble, probably because apostrophes are necessary in possessives except where they’re prohibited. So that’s confusing, but at least they’re prohibited only for pronouns. Possessive pronouns take no apostrophe: your, yours, my, mine, his, her, hers, our ours, their, theirs, its, whose. For all other nouns and proper nouns, use an apostrophe to indicate possession. Here’s how it works:
My son’s gloves and my daughter’s scarf are missing, but their coats are right here next to yours and mine.
Two especially confusing words are it and who, which are pronouns and follow the rule of not taking an apostrophe when they’re used as possessives, but remember that they do need the apostrophe when they’re part of the contraction it is, it has, who is or who has:
My memoir’s nearly finished, and it’s [contraction: it has] been a great experience working on each of its [possessive: belonging to it] chapters. Who’s [contraction: who is] going to read it? I hope my memoir will resonate with everyone whose [possessive: belonging to whom] life has had challenges to overcome.
When the semicolon is used incorrectly, the error typically is that it’s used where a comma should be. The only time commas and semicolons are interchangeable is in a long or complex series. You can choose to write this sentence with either commas or semicolons:
I hope to study a variety of subjects, including creative writing, European and Asian history, earth science and biology, sociology, accounting, and Spanish language and culture.
I hope to study a variety of subjects, including: creative writing; European and Asian history; earth science and biology; sociology; accounting; and Spanish language and culture.
Notice that I inserted a colon in the second example, because when you use semicolons in that series it’s traditional to introduce the series with a colon.
The other common use of the semicolon is to replace not a comma but a period. When you have two sentences that relate closely to each other, you can choose to separate them with a semicolon instead of a period:
I’m writing my memoir; I hope to finish by June.
Another option is to connect the two sentences with a comma followed by and. The error people tend to make is to use the semicolon when one of the parts is not a complete sentence—that is, it doesn’t have its own subject and verb.
Feel Like Taking a Course?
Then there are dashes, hyphens, colons, parentheses—let’s save those goodies for another day. Or, hey, I’ll plug our grammar course, available right here on Write My Memoirs. It’s just $59 and covers not only punctuation but verb issues, agreement challenges, word mixups and more.