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.

The bible of writing

7 10 2010

It’s not a stretch to call The Elements of Style the bible of writing.

Published in 1919 by Cornell University English professor William Strunk Jr. and revised by famous writer and one-time student of Strunk’s, E.B. White, in 1959, the “little book” remains a trusted companion for anyone who writes for a living.

Heck, if you write anything at all, you should own a copy.

According to Strunk,The Elements of Style is dedicated to the idea of making “every word tell.”

In the book’s intro, he explains:

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all the sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Certainly, a good portion of the 105-page book is about not overwriting, which is the No. 1 mistake people make. Strunk calls it cutting the “deadwood” out of your sentences. But there are so many useful tips on so many facets of writing that it’s impossible to sum it up in a paragraph.

Add to that the fact that it is written with a unique tone, wit and charm, and it’s no wonder that it is the only writing manual to ever appear on the bestseller lists.

Here are five tips from the “little book” that will make anyone, professional or not, a better writer:

1. Use the active voice

The active voice is usually more direct and attractive to readers than the passive.

* There were a lot of dead leaves lying on the ground.
* Dead leaves covered the ground.

When a sentence is made stronger through the active voice, it usually becomes shorter. That helps with that old overwriting problem.

2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition

The paragraph is a convenient unit; it serves all forms of writing. As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length — a single, short sentence or a long passage.

Moderation and a sense of order should be the main considerations in paragraphing. You are trying to help the reader understand what is going on by bunching your sentences logically. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the story has been reached. As a rule, begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition.

3. Importantly

Avoid using this word by rephrasing.

* More importantly, he paid for the damages.
* What’s more, he paid for the damages.

* With the breeze freshening, he altered course to pass inside the island. More importantly, as things turned out, he tucked in a reef.
* With the breeze freshening, he altered course to pass inside the island. More important, as things turned out, he tucked in a reef.

4. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long summary

A dash is a mark of separation that is stronger than a comma.

* His first thought on getting out of bed — if he had any thought at all — was to get back in again.

* The rear axle began to make a noise — a grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp.

5. It’s or its

A common error is to write it’s for its, or vice versa. The first is a contraction, meaning “it is.” The second is a possessive.

* It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.

5 more finer points of writing

20 08 2010

In my last post, I shared five fantastic writing tips I found on, which is one of the finest blogs dedicated to the craft.

In the interest of being more than a cheerleader for blogs I admire, I figured I should offer some pointers of my own. Having been an editor at daily newspapers for several years, I became very familiar with a handful of mistakes that pop up over and over again, even with professional writers. Many of these distinctions might seem a bit picky, but being picky about words is really what writing is all about.

So here are five common mistakes to avoid, whether you are writing a cover letter for your dream job or an email to a friend:

1. Very spectacular: There are some adjectives that by their very nature are extreme. Brilliant. Enormous. Spectacular. Putting an adverb such as very or fairly in front of these “extreme adjectives” not only isn’t necessary, it doesn’t make sense. Telling a friend that the meal you had at the corner restaurant was very disgusting is redundant. All you have to do is tell them that the meal was disgusting, and they will get the point that it was more than just bad.

2. Unique: Many people use the word unique when they are referring to something that is unusual. But in order for something to be truly unique, it has to be one of a kind. A four-leave clover is unusual, but it’s not unique. Though hard to find, there are other four-leave clovers out there. As the only one-armed pitcher in the major leagues, Jim Abbott was unique.

3. Whether or not: This one is pretty simple, but writers get it wrong quite often. Consider the following sentence: “We are trying to decide whether or not to invite Tracy to the movies.” In that sentence, the “or not” shouldn’t be there. It should read, “We are trying to decide whether to invite Tracy to the movies.”

4. Dates back: If a modern geologist is writing a textbook, and she writes about a tool that “dates back to the 17th century,” she is being redundant. If we are talking about an item from the 17th century, we already know it dates back. All she has to say is that “the tool dates to the 17th century.” Keep in mind, if that same geologist is writing about a tool that “dates back 400 years,” the word “back” is necessary. That one is easy to remember because if you take the word “back” out, it’s obvious that it doesn’t make sense.

5. Different from vs. different than: In all cases, different from is correct. Different is not a comparative word, but rather one of contrast. So you would say apples are different from brocoli because they have completely different flavors. You want to indicate that they are unlike one another, so it’s “different from.” The word “than” should only follow comparative words. One runner is faster than another. They both are fast, but to different degrees. They are comparable. If that explanation seems too technical, just remember, it’s always “different from.”