Punctuation: why do we need it anyway?

Today, I'm delighted to feature a guest post by fellow copywriter Sarah Turner. As you'll see, she's a definitely a woman after my own heart . . .

Punctuation. Ahhh yes. Those dots and dashes. Squiggly bits and curly bits. Nips and tucks. What are they for exactly? And do we need them anymore?

After all, punctuation marks take up valuable character space in a tweet or a text message. And thinking about where to put a full stop or comma in an email is a complete pain in the backside after all it is only an email and people tend to scan them anyway and no doubt it will be deleted by tomorrow so that’s really ok then isn’t it?

Wrong. Wrong. And thrice wrong.

Seriously. Nothing makes you look more uneducated, unprofessional and unworthy than writing your when you meant you’re.

True story. A web designer colleague received an email from a prospective client. ‘I was going to give you my website to do. But on your home page you’ve written it’s when you mean its. This is careless. I shall be going elsewhere.’ Ouch!

So how do we define punctuation?

Lynne Truss (yes, she of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame) refers to a number of definitions: ‘Punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour and stop.’ And ‘Punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.’

In other words, it’s about making what you write as easy as possible for your reader to understand. The last thing you want is to have your reader tripping over your words like a drunken teenager after 11 bottles of alcopops.

Now, speaking is a whole lot easier than writing (unless you’ve drunk 11 bottles of alcopops). When we speak, we can elaborate on what we’re saying by raising our voice, slowing down, stressing words, pausing, repeating what we’ve just said, and waving our hands about.

The same can’t be the said for writing. In writing we only have words and punctuation. That’s it. Punctuation is voice raising, pausing and hand waving in the form of dots and squiggles. Which means a good use of punctuation is vital if you want to get your message across loud and clear.

Remember this example? A professor wrote this sentence on the blackboard and asked the class to punctuate it.

Woman without her man is nothing.

The guys punctuated it like this:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.

The girls like this:

Woman: Without her, man is nothing

This exercise shows how a slight change in punctuation can completely alter the meaning of a sentence. And, by the way, the second one is right (!).

Now, believe it or not, punctuation is simple. It’s as easy as remembering how your washing machine works.

Don’t be put off by websites that explain semicolons as ‘a punctuation mark used to separate two parts of a compound sentence when they are not connected by a conjunction.’

What? Now I’m guessing here. But if you’re not sure what a semicolon is, chances are, you might not know too much about compound sentences and conjunctions.

A much better explanation would be: a semicolon separates two complete sentences which are closely related. For example:

I really like tea at The Savoy; it’s served at 4.00pm every day.

See? Simple.

So where do you find easy to understand punctuation tips?

Check out these:

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by L Trask

The Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation by Jon Seely The Oxford University Press website

And of course the Turner Ink website

Sarah Turner of Turner Ink is a London based freelance copywriter who has an informal and witty style. Some may say irreverent.

She loves punctuation. But is allergic to business bull, long words and waffle; she has a particular loathing for the word ‘solution’.