Is poor punctuation ruining your writing?

12 01 2011

When it comes to punctuation, many people either don’t think it’s important, or if they do understand how important it is, they have trouble with it.

If you fall into either of these categories and you have to write anything at all for your job — even something as small as an email — you have a problem.

There are three major reasons proper punctuation is important — very important — to writing:

1. Clarity and “sound”: When we talk, we punctuate what we say with frequent pauses. Often we raise or lower our voices to stress or bring attention to certain phrases. We also gesture with our arms or raise our eyebrows to enhance what we are saying. We do all this without thinking about it. It’s natural. If we spoke to someone in a flat monotone, evenly spacing every syllable, we would lose the person’s interest. The person we are speaking to might even think something is wrong with us. When we write, we can’t rely on raising or lowering our voices or using hand gestures to make our point. Yet somehow we must clue the reader in to how we want our words and phrases to “sound” on the page. This is where punctuation comes in.

Punctuation helps the reader navigate what you’ve written. It can tell the reader where to pause, what emotions are behind certain phrases, what points you are trying to emphasize, etc. A writer’s job is to make life easy for the reader. Punctuation provides a framework that eliminates confusion and keeps the reader interested in what you have to say. If the reader is tripped up by poor punctuation or an awkward sentence, you’ve ruined the flow of your piece, and your message is lost.

Consider this paragraph from Sean Wilsey’s humorous memoir, Oh the Glory of it All:

We were Mom and Dad and I — three palindromes! — and we lived eight hundred feet in the air above San Francisco; an apartment at the top of a building at the top of a hill: full of light, full of voices, full of windows, full of water and bridges and hills.

Try to imagine that paragraph without any punctuation — it would be unreadable. With proper punctuation, it’s clear, entertaining and keeps the reader’s attention.

2. That’s not what I meant: Punctuation — where it appears or if it appears at all — can literally change the meaning of a sentence or clause.

In 2006, a Canadian court ordered cable TV giant Rogers Communications to pay Aliant Telecom $2 million because of a misplaced comma in a contract between the companies. The court ruled that the comma in question changed the meaning of a clause in the contract.

Another example didn’t cost anybody any money, but it does illustrate how punctuation alone can completely change the meaning of a sentence or passage.

An English professor wrote the following words on a chalkboard:

A woman without her man is nothing

The professor then asked his students to punctuate it correctly.

All the males in the class wrote:

A woman without her man is nothing.

All the females in the class wrote:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

The words are exactly the same, but different punctuation changes the meaning entirely.

3. Look professional: How you communicate affects how people perceive you, and how people perceive you affects how they interact with you. Would they hire you? Do they want to do business with you? Would they trust you to represent them in court or handle their retirement fund?

Sloppy or confusing punctuation in your correspondence tells people: “I am second-rate. I haven’t dedicated the time or resources to get this right, so what makes you think you can trust me with your business?”

Don’t undermine the expertise you’ve worked hard to establish by sending a letter or giving a presentation that looks like it was written by a seventh-grader.

If you have trouble with punctuation, it’s important to recognize it and address the problem. You can either work at it yourself or hire someone to edit your writing. The last thing you want to do is ignore the weakness and hope others haven’t noticed, because they have.

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