Use Punctuation Wisely!
I couldn’t help but chuckle at this recent story from The Boston Globe on the overuse of exclamation points.
Remember when email first came into prevalence? I do. Suddenly writing in all caps meant you were virtually yelling at someone. Typing made it easier to EMPHASIZE YOUR WORDS in a way that handwriting just couldn’t. With a quick touch of command + b, u, or i your words could be bolded, underlined, and italicized. Fancy!
Christopher Muther, the author of the piece I read in The Boston Globe, blames two men with the overuse of exclamation points in society today.
In 2008, they wrote a book called “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.” It created a minor sensation, partially because the authors condoned the use of exclamation points.
“ ‘I’ll see you at the conference,’ is a simple statement of fact,” they wrote. “ ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.” –Christopher Muther
One Boston University psycholinguist quoted in the story says that exclamation points can “mitigate the brusqueness of a brief reply by indicating the writer’s enthusiasm, sincerity, surprise…”
I recently wrote a blog post on the perils of email communication where I was involved in a situation where my brief email replies were misconstrued as rude by the recipient. I wonder, now, if I had included a bunch of exclamation points, or, heaven forbid, smiley face emoticons, at the end of my sentences if they would have softened my message. I’ll never know.
I run a blog where I publish stories about weddings in Maine. Photographers submit photos of a particular wedding, and the bride fills out a questionnaire about their big day for their blog post. These questionnaires are consistently dripping in exclamation points.
I get it. Your wedding day is exciting! You’re marrying the man of your dreams! It really is a dream come true! But I omit most of these exclamation points in the blog posts because, well, all the excitement is kind of hard to swallow.
While the wedding questionnaire and emails are, admittedly, usually written in a more conversational tone, it’s sort of funny if you take a moment and read them out loud. If more people did this, I bet there would be much less exclamation point use because these people would realize how silly they sound.
Punctuation marks prevent confusion and they help us, as readers, create rhythm. I decided to look up the basic guidelines of our punctuation in my trusty When Words Collide book to see how we should really be using our punctuation. Here goes:
A comma, a subtle mark, creates a short pause between sentence elements.
I can’t tell you how many times commas trip writers up. My rule of thumb? Read what you are writing out loud and insert a comma when you subconsciously pause while reading the sentence.
Another note on the comma—depending on what the style is for the publication you are writing for, a serial comma may or may not be used. I prefer the example: red, white, and blue over red, white and blue. Adding the last comma before the and in the last item creates a clearer distinction, in my humble opinion.
- A semicolon slows the reader; it isn’t powerful enough to completely stop.
A dash—maligned by purists but used frequently in journalism—creates a more abrupt break than the comma.
I actually use the dash in lieu of the semicolon. Perhaps it’s because I am a journalist, but I think the dash is cleaner looking than the semicolon and less pretentious.
- A colon announces the following: a list, a fragment, a sentence, or a quotation.
A hyphen is well-used in our language. It joins modifiers that belong together.
Hyphens always trip me up. That’s why we have an English professor/grammarian guru on staff at the magazine to insert them into our copy when needed.
- An ellipsis warns us…something is missing. Sometimes people use an ellipsis like a dash…but I always prefer the latter.
Parentheses (they look like this) are used to clarify a point or add an aside without (we hope) hampering the sentence rhythm.
If you are quoting someone, you can not (in good faith) use a parentheses, in my opinion. They also serve as an inner monologue that can’t be proven in a quote.
Do you have any punctuation pet peeves you’d care to share? I’d love to listen…