As any editor or proofreader can tell you, certain errors show their ugly faces in almost every manuscript. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of skill or negligence on the part of the writer, but more likely because the items in question have a confusing set of rules attached to them or aren’t commonly used enough to even have well-defined rules.
One of the worst offenders is the hyphen. Just look at the example above. Why is it “well-defined” rather than two separate words? There happens to be a rule of thumb to mark the context, but it often takes more research than should be necessary to find it. Basically, any instance of what sounds like a compound word being used as a modifier (with the exception of adverbs ending in “ly”) for the noun following it is likely to be hyphenated. That said, there are exceptions that have transformed into the closed form of compound words over time, so it’s always smart to check a dictionary to be sure.
The comma is another notorious weak spot, and one that’s often hard to blame on writers because of the absurd number of rules surrounding it. However, a few points of reference to always keep in mind: a comma always precedes the name of someone who is being directly addressed (i.e. “How are you feeling, George?”), a comma usually precedes a conjunction linking two independent clauses (i.e “I wish I could afford a new car, but I don’t have enough money.”), a comma should follow an introductory element in a sentence (i.e “However,” “Nonetheless,” etc.), a comma should separate all items in a list/series (yes, the Oxford comma is on the outs, but it really shouldn’t be as it’s omission leads to a lot of confusion), and a comma should precede a word at the end of a sentence that indicates a pause or shift (i.e. “Who needs all these rules, anyway?”).
Semicolons also have a tendency to be misused. Some people use them to separate the items in a series in lieu of commas, but this should only be done when the items themselves contain commas (i.e. “Today, I washed the dishes, then dried them; cut up the celery, then put it away…”). Semicolons are also used to connect two closely linked independent clauses. This means that each half of what the mark is connecting should be a simple sentence. Otherwise, a comma is likely a better choice.
Another issue that frequently comes up is confusion between “nor” and “or.” This is an easy one to catch and fix. Simply put, “neither” is followed by “nor,” whereas “either” is followed by “or.”
One final issue regards capitalization. Whenever a title takes the place of a name, it should be capitalized. For instance, “Your mother is a very kind woman,” remains lowercase, whereas, “Hi, Mom!” should be capitalized. A similar rule exists for titles/honorifics, marking the difference between, “That police officer is chasing someone!” and “Officer Garrett is chasing someone!” Unless a name is attached to the title, it should remain lowercase (with the possible exceptions of it being used in direct address or if it’s an incredibly prestigious title).
These problem areas are just a few of the errors that creep into otherwise good books, threatening to persist in other projects if left unnoticed. Furthermore, a writer should never rely on Word’s spelling and grammar checker to catch everything. The program is useful, but it does have faults. Being aware of proper punctuation and grammar is a far better alternative to relying on a nanny.