A Period Piece, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love National Punctuation Day
by Chris Lundquist
by Chris Lundquist
It’s National Punctuation Day! An observance that, in my humble opinion, numbers among our nation’s top-300-or-so holidays and is rapidly climbing that list (watch your back Arbor Day!). National Punctuation Day, which was created in 1994 by writer and public speaker Jeff Rubin, bills itself as a, “celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”
A noble cause, no doubt. Discussions about punctuation rarely generate anything more than tepid yawns, except when they spark fiery arguments over the serial (or Oxford) comma. It’s easy to get lost in the intricacies of what different style guides prescribe for punctuation, but to do so is to miss the forest for the trees: punctuation is supposed to make our lives easier.
As the AP Stylebook puts it in its “A Guide to Punctuation”, the goal of punctuation should be to promote understanding and reduce ambiguity in our writing:
“The basic guideline is to use common sense.
–Punctuation is to make clear the thought being expressed.
–If punctuation does not help make clear what is being said, it should not be there.”
In other words—treat your commas, colons, semicolons, and em dashes with the respect they deserve! They can spare you plenty of confusion and misunderstanding if used with care.
This is the sort of reminder that would have value at any moment in time but seems particularly apt in 2020, as much of the professional world has gone virtual. We’ve been forced to heavily rely on the written word as we’ve converted much of our face-to-face office interactions into emails, chat messages, and texts. The risk of miscommunication is at an all-time high.
With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for effective and efficient punctuation:
Excessive Comma Usage
Setting aside the ageless debate over the serial comma, one of the most common issues with commas is overuse. There isn’t a hard and fast limit for how many commas is too many, but using them only where they add essential clarity is a good rule of thumb. If you find yourself needing to deploy a half dozen commas to bolt a complex set of ideas together, you may just want to divide them up into separate sentences.
Unsettlingly Unnecessary Quotation Marks
Chances are you’ve seen some of the many examples of “businesses” using quotation marks in an attempt to add “emphasis”, leaving readers confused and unsure about their sincerity. Use quotation marks to capture dialogue or render composition titles; if you need to stress something, turn to other formatting options like bold or underlined text instead.
In the context of journalistic writing, the ellipsis (…) is traditionally reserved for noting when words have been omitted in a passage of quoted speech or dialogue: “After consulting with my advisers … I have decided not to move forward with our previously-announced plans.” Some have taken to employing the ellipsis more liberally, using it when periods feel too definitive or final (e.g. “I don’t have any edits … this is fine …”), inadvertently leaving their recipient uncertain of their true meaning in the process. While there may be generational differences at play here, this is one error we’re all better off avoiding.
The semicolon might be the most misunderstood punctuation mark of all. Author Kurt Vonnegut famously derided them, arguing that “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” But they have their place, situated somewhere in the no man’s land between the comma and the period. To steer clear of Vonnegut’s ire, avoid substituting them in place of colons or periods. Outside of listing a series of complex phrases, semicolons are best used when you want to demonstrate the close relationship between two complete thoughts. To paraphrase the poet Alexander Pope, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” The semicolon is willing to extend you that same understanding when used judiciously.
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