The popularity of citizen journalism and blogging has given rise to a new breed of writers: the punctuation challenged. Today, just about anyone can post an article online without it first being scrutinized by an editor with a red pen. Because of this, grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes slip through with readers paying the price as they struggle to comprehend what the writer has penned. Whether you’re a casual blogger, a business professional with a Web site, or a citizen journalist, punctuation matters.
Punctuation serves the reader. It tells readers when one thought stops and a new one begins. It tells readers when a pause is in order or when two thoughts are intricately related. For example, the most basic punctuation mark, the period, acts as a stop sign. Readers understand that the sentence has come to an end. The comma, which has many purposes and is the most commonly misused punctuation mark, helps readers navigate through more complex sentences; it also gives readers a resting stop, a place to pause, as they work their way toward the end of a long sentence. Punctuation marks act as guideposts, gently directing readers through the words.
Punctuation serves the writer. Without proper punctuation, your words are more easily misinterpreted. By carefully choosing your marks, your words are less likely to be misunderstood. In addition to providing clarity, punctuation adds variety, tempo, style, and that oh-so-illusive voice to your writing. Imagine an article composed solely of sentences like this one. Wouldn’t that be boring? No variety. No pacing. In short: it would have no style! An article with basic sentences and punctuation can quickly become monotonous. Mastering punctuation and using it artfully makes your writing easier for readers to understand and more enjoyable to read.
Punctuation provides emphasis. Want to interject a related thought in the middle of a sentence? Want to emphasize a key point? Want to create a sense of urgency? Want to slow the reader down? Don’t overlook the power of punctuation marks! A colon can act as an arrow, pointing at the next thought while parentheses and commas (often used interchangeably) are ideal for interjecting asides.
Punctuation provides nuance. The punctuation marks that you choose, or not choose for that matter, provide nuance to your words. For example, look at the aside in parentheses above. By placing the aside in parentheses rather than between a set of commas, the aside sounds like a reminder (or a whisper) rather than a fundamental part of the sentence.
Let’s take a look at a string of words punctuated using different punctuation marks: o Today we’ll explore punctuation – special effects for your words! o Today we’ll explore punctuation: special effects for your words? o Today, we will explore punctuation (special effects) for your words.
Notice how each sentence conveys a different meaning? What do you want to emphasize? What subtle undertone do you want to add to your words?
Punctuation’s main purpose is to serve the reader. A skilled writer understands how to use punctuation to serve the reader while also communicating the message on a more subtle level. When used properly, punctuation is practically invisible, yet its effects are powerful! When used improperly, the reader finds himself stumbling through your words, struggling to make sense of what was just read. While your reader suffers and pays the price for your punctuation mistakes, in the end it is your Web site or blog that will feel the most pain as your readers flee in search of more readable and engaging content.