07 Punctuation: what’s the point?

punctuationReader, do you care about little dots and lines and squiggles?

If so, you’re in the minority. Look around and you’re surrounded by punctuation being mutilated to within a forward slash of its life.

Most obvious is the so-called greengrocer’s apostrophe – that genetically transferrable occupational compunction to spell the plural of a carrot as carrot’s and so on, through the whole stall of bean’s and onion’s and pea’s if you please, towards the apotheosis of the potatoe’s.

Can you find any logic in the pic above? Even if the caff is run by Dan Quayle, that doesn’t explain how the cold drinks escaped being errorised. Actually, there is some logic at work here: it seems if the word ends in a vowel, slap an apostrophe on it, boy! Wrong, of course, but that’s why you used to see video’s (wrong) for rent in the 90’s (wrong), which have now of course mutated into DVD’s (wrong, but wrong for the wrong reason according to the wrong vowel-at-the-end-the-word idea.) Just to be clear, apostrophes don’t make plurals. But who learned that at school?

Unless you were educated when Latin was the native language, or you learned about the semi-colon to the tuneful swish of a Lochgelly belt, the finer points of punctuation may have passed you by. Many people on my Professional Writing Skills workshops claim never to have been taught punctuation at all. I don’t believe them, because they all seem to know you never put a comma before and. Except that’s wrong too. It is perfectly correct to put a comma before and sometimes, and I’ll email you an explanation if you’d like. Or work out why from that last sentence.

But my teacher told me…
Have you thought of suing? Remember when your teacher said to take a breath at a comma? Good rule for learning to read when you’re six, but not ever when you’re writing. Imagine how peppered with commas your page would be if you had asthma. Punctuation exists to make meaning clear, not to help kids read.

Yet how are we to know what’s right, when wrong abounds where it shouldn’t?

The last time I saw the classic its/it’s mistake was on the BBC website, for goodness sake. I was once forced to have an interesting chat with a manager at Sainsbury’s about the educational impact of their Special Occassion (sic) range of cakes. And I recently saw a read-all-about-it newspaper board in the street inadvertently advertising the return of public executions: Father to be killed on M4.

And this relates to business how…?
Who cares about punctuation? Well, it’s not just grumpy old pedants shinning up lampposts (lamposts? lamp posts? I’ll look it up…) lamp-posts to paint out the apostrophe in CD’s on Tesco signs. How do you know your clients don’t care?

It’s a question of attention to detail. Suppose you send a letter or email that contains punctuation or grammar or spelling mistakes. You haven’t bothered to proof-read. What does that say about your fastidiousness in other aspects of your work?

By the way, I swear that wasn’t me up that Tesco sign. But I do absolutely refuse to stand in those 10 items or less queues. Why? Because I manifestly have fewer than 10 items! Ok, goodbye for this week. Where are my beta-blockers?

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember



2 Responses to “07 Punctuation: what’s the point?”

  1. Wikipedia never ceases to astound. This is the Wiki usage comment for “fewer”

    USAGE NOTE The traditional rule holds that fewer should be used for things that can be counted (fewer than four players), while less should be used with mass terms for things of measurable extent (less paper; less than a gallon of paint). However, less is used in some constructions where fewer would occur if the traditional rule were being followed. Less than can be used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles. Less is sometimes used with plural nouns in the expressions no less than (as in No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter) and or less (as in Give your reasons in 25 words or less).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: