So much depends on choosing the correct mark of punctuation at the correct time.
Each little period, each hyphen, each dash conveys meaning to the reader. And when the conventions of punctuation are ignored, readers tend to become confused.
The point of all business writing is clarity. If a document - whether email, letter, memo, or report - isn’t clear, no business is going to get done. Period.
The various marks of punctuation we have at our disposal can either be used to clarify or confuse. The mark I hear the most confusion over is the comma: how and when do we use it? When is it necessary, and when is it over used?
We’ll talk about two specific uses of the comma here and, as a result, help you be more certain of the punctuation choices you make.
Our two focus points are: commas after introductory phrases and commas in series.
Commas after introductory phrases
The way we use punctuation over time influences how meaning is applied to those marks of punctuation. We’re starting with the comma because this small mark causes a tremendous amount of controversy in writing and carries an enormous amount of weight.
Look, for example, at the sentence below:
“She sat in a café drinking coffee, wearing clogs and a scarf upon her head.”
What do you see? No, really; what do you SEE? Do you see a woman with clogs on her head along with a scarf?
That’s exactly what you should see. Based on the punctuation (and wording) the image is that of a woman with shoes on her head.
This sentence can be made clearer simply by changing the punctuation and moving the “and”:
“She sat in a café drinking coffee and wearing clogs, a scarf upon her head.”
Leave it out?
How about leaving a comma out? Does meaning become unclear without a comma?
“When Margaret ate pizza dripped from her chin.”
Not a very pretty sight, eh? Add a comma, and you’ll know what was dripping from her chin (though what she was actually eating is still unclear):
“When Margaret ate, pizza dripped from her chin.”
Commas in series
What about using the comma when listing items in series? Do you put the comma
before the “and” or do you leave it out?
“We’ll be preparing the budget, writing the proposal, and presenting the data at the conference.”
If you put it in, you are a fan of the serial comma right along with me!
If you left it out because you remember being told the “and” replaced the comma, then you might be struggling with what I’m going to say next: the serial comma helps to clarify information for the reader. When the serial comma is used, the reader can identify distinct entities in sentences easier.
Hold on! No rebellion just yet. Let me give you an example where the serial comma can help information become clear:
“My favorite meals are macaroni cheese and crackers peanut butter jelly and toast and
So just how many?
Based on what you see here, how many foods do I like? Five? Three? Depends on where the commas are. Take a look:
“My favorite meals are macaroni, cheese and crackers, peanut butter, jelly and toast, and fruit.” (5)
“My favorite meals are macaroni, cheese and crackers, peanut butter, jelly, and toast and fruit.” (5)
“My favorite meals are macaroni, cheese, and crackers; peanut butter, jelly, and toast; and fruit.” (3)
Without the comma distinctly separating each of the entities in the series, the reader is left to decide on the combinations of the foods that make up the meal. Putting the commas in—especially the serial comma—helps the reader know in what combinations I like them.
Do you notice the semicolons in the last example? The rule is when an item in a series already contains a comma, use semicolons to distinctly separate the items.
Some folks who don’t like the serial comma will say that in the above examples they agree with using it to clarify entities; however, they will opt not to use it when the meaning might appear transparent.
Readers pick up patterns
Here’s a caution for you: readers pick up patterns in punctuation very quickly. If the patterns are consistent, they have very little problem getting meaning.
But if the patterns vary, they can quickly become confused and begin to wonder what the various uses are and how they should interpret the data.
Our goal, as I mentioned at the start of this article, is complete clarity for our readers. Clarity overcomes misunderstandings and helps to establish our credibility as authors.
Our readers trust us and will cooperate with us to the degree that we have credibility with them. If we’re inconsistent, our credibility is damaged; and then they may not be so willing to work with us.
So much depends upon the comma!