Solving your writing problems since 1998!

Punctuation? Why Bother?

Yes, I know it’s not one of the most exciting parts of language, but it IS important. It’s another one of those basics that can make all the difference to your writing. Everyone knows that the competition on the Web is fierce — you have to do everything you can to make your site the best it can be and that includes paying attention to the little things … like punctuation.

Look at the following sentences:

  • Don’t stop.
  • Don’t, stop.

The first is a request to continue with the action; the second is the exact opposite — it’s saying that the action should cease. (Cast your mind back to a couple of real-life situations you’ve experienced and just think of the ramifications of leaving out that little punctuation mark!)

Commas are used to indicate a short pause — they alert the reader to the fact that the next thought will be connected to the one that has preceded it. (A full stop tells the reader that a new thought is about to start.)

Some writers adopt the “when in doubt, leave it out” approach, but, as we’ve already seen in the example above, the placement of a comma can radically alter the meaning of a sentence:

  • He was kicked by a mule which annoyed him. (The mule annoyed him.)
  • He was kicked by a mule, which annoyed him. (Being kicked annoyed him.)

Sometimes, omitting a comma can lead to ridiculous meanings:

  • While mother was cooking the baby wandered away.

Often, commas have to be used to avoid ambiguity in sentences:

  • You don’t really like it; you’re only pretending to please me.
  • You don’t really like it; you’re only pretending, to please me.

These sentences have two quite different meanings — as a result of the placement of the comma. (This is one of the really annoying things about built-in grammar programs, they can’t respond to subtleties of meaning — my page is littered with wiggly green lines at the moment!)

There are pages of rules that govern the use of commas, but the best rule is to read the sentence — aloud — and notice where you would pause to convey the intended meaning. If it’s a short pause (and the idea is all part of a single thought), whack in a comma. If it’s a longer pause (but still part of the same thought), use a semi-colon. If it’s the end of a completed thought — use a full stop. Now what could be easier?

The dash has a number of uses in formal language:

  • It marks off a parenthetic statement (something that needs to stand out from the rest of the sentence)
    • His excuse — and I must say I think it is a very lame one — is that he didn’t know he had to pay tax.
  • It marks an abrupt change in the structure of a sentence
    • I went to London to visit the queen, to Paris to drink the coffee, to Rome to see where all the roads led — but I must be boring you with these stories.
  • It acts as a sheep dog and rounds up the subject or object of a sentence when it consists of a long list
    • An unbroken view of the bay with its sweep of battered cliffs, a secluded beach, acres of unspoiled bushland, the ease of constructing an access road and the short distance between Sydney and the site – all these made this a perfect place to build a house.

I always think that dashes are great for informal writing — you may have noticed that I’m quite partial to the odd dash.

The exclamation mark should be used sparingly in formal writing — there are very few occasions which call for it. However, in informal writing, it can be used in these situations:

  • To indicate a strong emotion
    • I’ve won the lottery!
    • How dare you!
  • To indicate an exclamation or interjection
    • Hear, hear!
    • Wow!
  • To apostrophise a person or thing
    • You little ripper!
    • Land of the brave!
  • To indicate surprise
    • After eating twenty-five watermelons to win the competition, he was presented with first prize — a watermelon!

Here’s a classic example to illustrate the importance of punctuation — it’s been around for sometime — I wish I could claim credit for it but I can’t:

Version 1

Dear Jon:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?


Version 2

Dear Jon:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?