Punctuation at Work
Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style
Author: Richard Lauchman
Pub Date: February 2010
Print Edition: $13.95
Print ISBN: 9780814414941
Page Count: 208
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814414958
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This book is for those of you who have to write at work and want clear,
commonsense guidance on punctuation. It concerns the usages that
are simple, useful, and appropriate in workplace writing, where the
chief goal of any document is to convey information as efficiently as
possible. Other sorts of writing may seek to enthrall, beguile, amuse,
or contribute to the body of human knowledge. But busy executives
are not hoping to be enraptured or moved to giggles by an audit report.
They want to know, right away, whether they need to take action. And
one reason why corporate policies aren’t written in Shakespearean
verse is that readers of policies are neither seeking nor expecting a literary
experience. They simply want to know, in the clearest language
possible, what their rights and responsibilities are.
Certainly, in the writing we do at work, our readers deserve this
“clearest language possible.” I think it’s healthy to take pride in your
writing, and sensible to care about it, but wise to realize that the main
aim of style in workplace writing is to make things easy for the reader.
I’m going to show you how punctuation can contribute to simplicity of
style. In practical terms, the marks are nothing more than tools for
tightening the nuts and bolts of the airy stuff we call meaning. They’re
as unglamorous and mundane as any collection of wrenches and
screwdrivers—and once we get rid of the stupefying half-truths and
fallacies about them, they’re just as easy to use.
Why So Many Professionals Are Befuddled by
No one is born with a sense of where to put a comma. The kitten
knows how to pounce, but the child lacks instinct for hyphenating his
compound adjectives. We all have to learn how to punctuate, and that
means we’re at the mercy of those who teach us.
After a quarter-century of teaching writing in the workplace, I’m
no longer surprised by the sloppy and confusing punctuation I see in
most business, technical, scientific, and regulatory writing. What still
surprises me is the number of people who insist that they never received
any instruction in the matter. They do not say they never got
any “good” instruction or any “reasonable” instruction; they do not say
they were confused to the point of paralysis by inconsistencies in what
they were taught. What they say is that they were never taught how to
use the marks. And the frequency of this complaint is increasing. In
the United States it is possible these days to proceed through high
school, college, and graduate school with one’s instructors encouraging
the joys of expression and assuming that teaching clarity of expression
is someone else’s responsibility.
This is not to say that punctuation is never taught along the way,
because it usually is—in ways that make a practical man’s hair stand
on end. Often, instructors explain only a few crude and elementary usages,
leaving unexplored the numerous options essential to a good
writer. (I may be expert at wielding a sledgehammer, but if that’s the
only tool I know how to use, what do I do when I have to extract a
splinter?) The guidance writers receive from one year to the next can
be slapdash and whimsical, governed by the individual instructor’s personal
preference, taste, and overall feel for what constitutes good writing.
From one year to the next, this guidance can be conflicting and
even contradictory. As a freshman one may learn that using parentheses
is practically an immoral act; as a sophomore that parentheses are
useful, but that dashes are villainous; and as a junior that dashes are
the cat’s meow, but that semicolons are the footprints of a chucklehead,
or at least evidence of careless thinking.
It should come as no surprise that some instructors, ham-handed
or not, simply do not know the conventions of meaning and form. Others
may be unaware of important distinctions of usage. Such instructors,
often with great force, insist that however must always be
followed by a comma, that which must always be preceded by a
comma, that items in any bulleted list must be followed by semicolons,
and so on. There are plenty of English teachers and composition instructors
who are either mistaken about certain conventions or who
were taught the British conventions. In either case, what they plant in
fertile and impressionable young minds are the seeds of confusion and
And then we have those who learned correct usage decades and
decades ago, when (for example) cooperate required a hyphen, and it
was considered the pinnacle of good taste to introduce abbreviations
with great formality, as in American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation
(hereinafter referred to as “AT&T”). Usage has changed since then.
We have all been annoyed by the weather reporter on the radio who
tells us there is a zero chance of rain while we have the windshield
wipers on maximum. That reporter is reading from a script, not looking
through the window to see what’s really going on. And instructors who
do not bother to read well-written current stuff—to read it with their
eyes open, noticing how the marks are truly used—continue to report
from the 1960s and to insist that archaic conventions remain in force.
To this bubbling stew of misguidance, we add the two absurd
methods of instruction that have victimized writers for decades. The
first of these methods is what I call the “sound-bite” method. An example
is the famous “Put in a comma where you’d take a breath.” The
second is one we might call the “I-can’t-explain-it-simply-so-I’m-going-
to-use-jargon” method. An example of this one is the terrifying
and ultimately meaningless rule “A non-restrictive appositive used as
a summative modifier is set off with a comma.” Ninety-nine percent of
the people I work with day in and day out do not remember the jargon
of grammar, if indeed they were ever exposed to it. Is it any mystery
why people need help with punctuation?
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