Consider the beginning of this blog post without punctuation:
Does punctuation matter yes how you use punctuation can change the meaning of your writing in ways you might dread punctuation exists for a reason to help us communicate clearly
Or consider this classic example of a sentence with two very different meanings, depending on the punctuation:
- Woman: without her, man is nothing.
- Woman, without her man, is nothing.
Writing the Monday’s Mistake posts, and posting those same mistakes on LinkedIn, has made me painfully aware that punctuation confuses many of us. The mistakes are all drawn from real life. If we had mastered punctuation, I’d have a harder time finding mistakes to use.
And I want all of us to get the details right every time we right!
Announcing the free Guide to Punctuation
So I made the BetterFasterWriter Guide to Punctuation, a free ebook that dives into the nitty gritty rules of punctuation, rules that will not only help you avoid making mistakes, but improve the clarity of your writing too. And here, I’ve summed up some highlights from the ebook.
You know how to use periods, question marks and exclamation points, because they are used at the end of sentences. But the punctuation that happens elsewhere is problematic, it seems, as that’s when the mistakes are often made when writing at work.
The six types of punctuation I see used incorrectly are:
- Hyphens and Em Dashes
- Quotation Marks
I’ve covered them briefly below, as a condensed version of the ebook, but you can get the full Guide to Punctuation here.
People frequently misuse commas when writing for work. Some people seem to use commas as if they have a saltshaker full of them. They don’t know where to put the commas, so they randomly sprinkle them throughout their writing. Others leave the commas out, either in rebellion against the saltshaker approach or because they don’t know how to use them. Or maybe they consider commas old-fashioned?
I also suspect that texting, chat and social media posts dumb down our comma usage because we often leave out (or don’t think about) using punctuation in those cases.
But commas are important. For one thing, commas save lives. If you write…
Let’s eat grandpa.
…that means something very different than:
Let’s eat, grandpa.
That’s a funny example of what can happen when you leave out necessary commas. But commas are crucial because they help you communicate. Commas lead to clarity—or should anyway.
Admittedly, commas can be confusing, and it’s not always obvious when you should use them. So here’s an easy way to know: When in doubt, read your sentence out loud. If you pause, you need a comma. If you have a comma and you read it out loud with a pause for the comma, you’ll know whether or not the comma is right.
There are many rules that dictate how and when to use a comma, but regardless of the rule, remember that commas are a tool to help you clearly communicate. That is your number one rule for comma usage.
Learn the most important rules for how to use commas with this Guide to Punctuation.
Semicolons are perhaps the only punctuation so nuanced in usage. A semicolon is halfway between a period and a comma. You use it when a period is too strong of a stop, but a comma is too weak. And it’s easy to remember that it’s a blend of a period and a comma because that’s what it looks like: a period over a comma. (Note: You can learn more about semicolons with this blog post.)
Which of these two sentences uses correct punctuation and why?
Fraudulent charges aren’t always hundreds or thousands of dollars, they could be just a few bucks if someone is testing the waters with your information.
Fraudulent charges aren’t always hundreds or thousands of dollars; they could be just a few bucks if someone is testing the waters with your information.
It’s the second one. A period after the word “dollars” would have worked. A comma does not. And a semicolon is perfect—but not required. It separates the two statements enough because they need more than the comma can do, but still leaves them a little bit connected. Nuance!
Semicolons can also fill in for commas when needed for clarity. For example, if you end up using commas within commas, you can use semicolons as the “exterior” commas and the commas for the “interior” as in this example:
The analysts predict up to 4.3 million cooks and servers; 3.82 million janitors, cleaners and housekeepers; and 2.4 million movers and warehouse workers will lose their jobs due to automation.
Learn more about semicolons and practice using them with this Guide to Punctuation.
Hyphens and Em Dashes
In English, we have three types of dashes: hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. We rarely use en dashes, but hyphens and em dashes are frequently used—and misused.
A hyphen is the shortest dash, and the list of rules for using them is also short.
Do use a hyphen when two or more words work together to modify a noun as in:
- Long-term approach
- Six-year-old program
- 90-day probation
- cutting-edge technology
Do use hyphens consistently. Don’t sometimes write “email” without a hyphen and other times “e-mail” with a hyphen.
Don’t use a hyphen after an adverb:
- “Fully-integrated” is wrong.
- “Absurdly easy” is right.
Use hyphens when writing out a number between 21 and 99, as in:
- Eighty-five people
- Sixty-three cows
- One hundred twenty-one people
Don’t use a hyphen when it’s supposed to be an em dash. This sentence is wrong because the writer used a hyphen when they should have used an em dash:
ABC Company orchestrates integrated workflows across the industry management cycle from customer requests to invoicing and payment – enabling a whole new level of cooperation.
To learn about em dashes, download this Guide to Punctuation.
With parentheses, you only have one rule to remember: If it’s a complete sentence, capitalize the first word and put a period inside of the closing parenthesis. This sentence is wrong:
But you wouldn’t be expected to do any handholding (in fact, they may rather resent it if you did).
It should be written like this:
But you wouldn’t be expected to do any handholding. (In fact, they may rather resent it if you did.)
Or if the writer wanted to change the complete sentence to an incomplete one, the sentence could be written like this, in which case the period stays outside of the closing parenthesis:
But you wouldn’t be expected to do any handholding (and they may rather resent it if you did).
Quotation marks are frequently misused in business writing, but you only need two rules to use them correctly.
Do use quotation marks if you are quoting someone, setting off words as “words,” and sometimes for titles of books or other publications.
Do not use quotation marks for emphasis.
When you put words inside of quotation marks, you’re not emphasizing them but rather insinuating they mean something else. For example, this scary sign that implies hygiene is perhaps not as important as it should be at this business:
I picture someone doing air quotes as they say, “wash hands,” don’t you? Meaning the employee doesn’t really have to wash their hands.
And that’s a wrap!
Those are some highlights from the free Guide to Punctuation ebook, and I hope they help you to get the details right when you write. But to learn even more about the rules and how to apply them, get the Guide to Punctuation ebook—or get it for that coworker who can’t seem to master commas.