Do you believe that the placement of one period can save a person’s life? Consider a king who condemned a prisoner to death and sent this note to the jailer “PARDON IMPOSSIBLE. TO BE EXECUTED.” A sympathetic courier changed the punctuation as follows: “PARDON. IMPOSSIBLE TO BE EXECUTED.”
Consider also the following sentences that use punctuation to have a powerful impact:
- “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three …” Nabokov’s Lolita.
- “One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea?” George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
- “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.
As you can see, punctuation controls writing. Punctuation guides the reader, telling them when to pause, where to stop and transforms words into a meaningful sentence. Our goal in writing should be to convey a specific, clear and intended meaning.
It is likely we use our computers and mobile devices for our personal and business communications so our writing style may be consistent regardless of our reader. Time pressures create temptations to communicate with shortcuts, abbreviations, acronyms and use of emoticons. Similar to the choices you make in the style of your wardrobe, the reader receiving a business-related communication may infer your writing style reflects your business style. Is your business writing style precise, concise, thoughtful, and attentive to detail? Is your business writing style casual, conversational, cryptic, and packed with shortcuts, acronyms and emoticons? Is your writing style somewhere in between these two styles?
Our work-related texts, emails, posts, blogs and tweets are business communications that reflect our level of professionalism and may be a determining factor in whether or not to do business with us. Mistaken or misuse of punctuation can cost time, money, and productivity. Properly placed punctuation reduces ambiguities and misunderstandings and this is particularly important in proposals and contracts.
Consider the awkwardness of following sentences and how you must sort through the convoluted sentences and unclear messages:
- “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Tails Magazine printed headline.
- “Thank you! Your Donation Just Helped Someone. Get a Job.” The first period in the Goodwill sign drastically changes the meaning.
- “When it comes to eating people differ in their tastes.” OR “When it comes to eating, people differ in their tastes.”
- “Let’s eat Grandpa!” OR “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”
- “A woman without her man is nothing.” OR “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” OR “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
Punctuation marks can change the meaning and have disastrous, and often embarrassing, results. It is very important to understand punctuation marks, their meanings and when to use them in order to convey the intended message. After all, don’t we intend to eat with Grandpa instead of eating Grandpa? Didn’t Goodwill intend to say that the donation helped someone to get a job? What sounds silly quickly becomes very serious when you thought your business communication was straightforward only to be informed that the client has a different interpretation based upon the placement of the punctuation and is demanding performance that will cause your company to lose money.
A writing style reference book is a worthy investment but only if it is used. You can improve your punctuation by doing some fun exercises to master the basics. Go through a piece of published writing and explain all the punctuation in it. For example, George Orwell and John Updike are two writers known for clarity. Note how different writers use punctuation marks to organize and speak in a unique voice. E.E. Cummings, James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, and William Faulkner are some writers known for ignoring punctuation. Note how different it is to read something with minimal or no punctuation. This exercise of studying why each punctuation mark is used will create a habit repeated every time you write something and every time you read something. If you are unable to complete this exercise, you have identified a learning opportunity.