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In the workplace, good punctuation is much more than a matter of correctness. It’s a matter of efficiency. Professionals who aren’t sure how to punctuate take more time than necessary to write, as they fret about the many inconsistent and contradictory rules they’ve picked up over the years. Good punctuation is also a matter of courtesy: In workplace writing, a sentence should yield its meaning instantly, but when punctuation is haphazard, readers need to work to understand – or guess at – the writer’s intent. Weak punctuation results in time-wasting confusion, questions about professionalism, and some times even serious and costly miscommunication.
Without using the jargon of grammar — and providing 18 common sense principles to live by — Punctuation at Work shows busy professionals exactly how the marks can be used to make meaning clear and emphasize ideas. All the marks are covered, with hundreds of examples taken from today’s workplace. From hyphens and semicolons to brackets and quotation marks...all the way to ellipses (and the eternal struggle between “that” and “which”), this book explains the many ways punctuation makes things plain.
This book is for those of you who have to write at work and want clear a commonsense guidance on punctuation. It concerns the usages that are simple, useful, and appropriate in workplace writing, where the chief goal of any document is to convey information as efficiently as possible. Other sorts of writing may seek to enthrall, beguile, amuse a or contribute to the body of human knowledge. But busy executives are not hoping to be enraptured or moved to giggles by an audit report.
They want to know, right away, whether they need to take action. And one reason why corporate policies aren’t written in Shakespearean verse is that readers of policies are neither seeking nor expecting a literary experience. They simply want to know, in the clearest language possible, what their rights and responsibilities are.
Certainly, in the writing we do at work, our readers deserve this
“clearest language possible.” I think it’s healthy to take pride in your writing, and sensible to care about it, but wise to realize that the main aim of style in workplace writing is to make things easy for the reader.
I’m going to show you how punctuation can contribute to simplicity of style. In practical terms, the marks are nothing more than tools for tightening the nuts and bolts of the airy stuff we call meaning. They’re as unglamorous and mundane as any collection of wrenches and screwdrivers—and once we get rid of the stupefying half-truths and fallacies about them, they’re just as easy to use.
Why So Many Professionals Are Befuddled by
No one is born with a sense of where to put a comma. The kitten knows how to pounce, but the child lacks instinct for hyphenating his compound adjectives. We all have to learn how to punctuate, and that means we’re at the mercy of those who teach us.
After a quarter-century of teaching writing in the workplace, I’m no longer surprised by the sloppy and confusing punctuation I see in most business, technical, scientific, and regulatory writing. What still surprises me is the number of people who insist that they never received any instruction in the matter. They do not say they never got any “good” instruction or any “reasonable” instruction; they do not say they were confused to the point of paralysis by inconsistencies in what they were taught. What they say is that they were never taught how to use the marks. And the frequency of this complaint is increasing. In the United States it is possible these days to proceed through high school, college, and graduate school with one’s instructors encouraging the joys of expression and assuming that teaching clarity of expression is someone else’s responsibility.
This is not to say that punctuation is never taught along the way a because it usually is—in ways that make a practical man’s hair stand on end. Often, instructors explain only a few crude and elementary usages a leaving unexplored the numerous options essential to a good writer. (I may be expert at wielding a sledgehammer, but if that’s the only tool I know how to use, what do I do when I have to extract a splinter?) The guidance writers receive from one year to the next can be slapdash and whimsical, governed by the individual instructor’s personal preference, taste, and overall feel for what constitutes good writing.
From one year to the next, this guidance can be conflicting and even contradictory. As a freshman one may learn that using parentheses is practically an immoral act; as a sophomore that parentheses are useful, but that dashes are villainous; and as a junior that dashes are the cat’s meow, but that semicolons are the footprints of a chucklehead a or at least evidence of careless thinking.
It should come as no surprise that some instructors, ham-handed or not, simply do not know the conventions of meaning and form. Others may be unaware of important distinctions of usage. Such instructors a often with great force, insist that however must always be followed by a comma, that which must always be preceded by a comma, that items in any bulleted list must be followed by semicolons a and so on. There are plenty of English teachers and composition instructors who are either mistaken about certain conventions or who were taught the British conventions. In either case, what they plant in fertile and impressionable young minds are the seeds of confusion and error.
And then we have those who learned correct usage decades and decades ago, when (for example) cooperate required a hyphen, and it was considered the pinnacle of good taste to introduce abbreviations with great formality, as in American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (hereinafter referred to as “AT&T”). Usage has changed since then.
We have all been annoyed by the weather reporter on the radio who tells us there is a zero chance of rain while we have the windshield wipers on maximum. That reporter is reading from a script, not looking through the window to see what’s really going on. And instructors who do not bother to read well-written current stuff—to read it with their eyes open, noticing how the marks are truly used—continue to report from the 1960s and to insist that archaic conventions remain in force.
To this bubbling stew of misguidance, we add the two absurd methods of instruction that have victimized writers for decades. The first of these methods is what I call the “sound-bite” method. An example is the famous “Put in a comma where you’d take a breath.” The second is one we might call the “I-can’t-explain-it-simply-so-I’m-going-to-use-jargon” method. An example of this one is the terrifying and ultimately meaningless rule “A non-restrictive appositive used as a summative modifier is set off with a comma.” Ninety-nine percent of the people I work with day in and day out do not remember the jargon of grammar, if indeed they were ever exposed to it. Is it any mystery why people need help with punctuation?
What You Need to Know First: 19 Principles
1. Punctuation can’t rescue sense from nonsense.
2. The main reason to punctuate is to clarify your intent.
3. One of punctuation’s tasks is to supply the various signals given by the voice.
4. In workplace writing, a sentence should yield its meaning instantly.
5. Punctuation should be invisible.
6. Punctuation follows the arrangement of words.
7. Punctuation indicates how ideas relate.
8. Punctuation suggests how much emphasis an idea deserves.
9. Punctuation slows the reading.
10. Don’t count too much on context to make your meaning plain.
11. Know the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive expressions.
12. Respect the distinction between that and which.
13. When is punctuation optional?
14. Use the serial comma.
15. When do I separate adjectives with a comma?
16. Use the hyphen to clarify “improvised usage.”
17. Sometimes, no matter how you punctuate, a reader is going to think it’s wrong.
18. Feed your head.
19. When you see an odd usage, consider the source.
• Question Mark
• Quotation Marks
• Punctuating Common Sentence Structures
Appendix: How to List Ideas