30 May 2023

Punctilious punctuation?

Increasingly, in both a work and social context, our communication is digital. We communicate as fast as our fingers (or thumbs) will allow and inevitably the established rules of punctuation are being eroded. But does punctuation still matter?

Punctuation is important because it adds clarity to written prose and, when it is used correctly, eliminates ambiguity. It can also be employed to add emphasis or to convey emotion – double question marks or repeated exclamation marks will leave the reader in no doubt about the ‘tone’ of the writer, a paired question mark and exclamation mark (an ‘interrobang’) conveys both surprise and interrogation, whereas a simple question mark can communicate doubt and tentativeness as well as signalling a direct question.

It is important, in all your written communications, to be aware of context and to amend your punctuation style accordingly. Overuse of punctuation in a business email will make you look emotionally incontinent and will do nothing to project an air of quiet professionalism. On the other hand, punctuating a casual text exchange with friends with pedantic care might make you look buttoned-up or be interpreted as passive-aggressive.

Professional Emails

In a work context, the main function of punctuation is to add clarity. Don’t be bamboozled by the digital medium into over-using slang and jargon and under-using punctuation. Write in short, clear sentences.

Ensure that correct punctuation is used. Do not use lower case letters throughout as this can appear lazy. Typing entire words in capital letters, on the other hand, may look over-insistent. If you want to emphasise something, try underlining or using italics.

Avoid abbreviations and text language. Many recipients will find this irritating or incomprehensible. Worse still, it looks like you simply can’t be bothered to write properly.

Email is a conversational medium, but this should not be reinforced by over-punctuating. Exclamation marks can look somewhat hectic and over-emphatic, emojis may appear childish and kisses should be avoided in a business context, where you need to be projecting calm competence.

Business Texting

We increasingly use texts, or other messaging apps such as Slack, in a work context, to communicate with colleagues, clients, suppliers. Texting is ideal for spontaneous communication, but it is important to always remember that you are at work and to ensure that, if in doubt, you err on the side of professionalism, and avoid abbreviations, overuse of punctuation, emojis and so on, and concentrate on writing short, clear sentences. Obviously, some work environments will encourage more laid-back forms of communication, but you need to be confident that you are recognising the norms of your workplace and not transgressing by texting over-casually, especially when you are communicating with senior management.

Social Texting

When it comes to texting friends, grammatical rules and punctuation are not prioritised, except when it is important to avoid ambiguity, but this can cause problems. A short text message can be alarmingly open to misinterpretation, with readers warily reading punctuation, or the lack of it, as a sign of sarcasm, irritation or passive aggression.

Full stops, in particular, seem to be a cause of disquiet, especially when they are used at the end of a text, with anxious texters interpreting a text that ends “Thanks.” as hostile and repressive. Many users will see the final full stop as redundant (it is quite clear that the message has ended) and over-formal and pedantic. It goes against the flowing, spontaneous, open-ended nature of texting communication. An ellipsis might seem like a suitable alternative, but those three dots are often interpreted with foreboding as an indication that something is wrong or unresolved, or that you are leaving something lingering or unsaid.  On the other hand, a final exclamation mark is seen as a way of mitigating any notion of harshness and will end a text on a lighter note (although in many cases this will be entirely inappropriate).

With even a simple full stop appearing to pack a powerful punch, it is scarcely surprising that many texters have recourse to emojis, which can be useful ways of adding an emotional ‘gloss’ to verbal messages, giving the recipient very strong clues about how texts should be interpreted and ensuring that purely verbal messages are not misunderstood.

Many older generation texters, who have not grown up using digital media, will naturally tend to adhere to the rules of written punctuation that they were taught at school. Their messages will be text-book clear but may come across to a younger generation as formal and unfriendly. It is hardly reasonable to demand that these texters should change the habit of a lifetime; instead, we should all get into the habit of pausing for a moment to think about who we are communicating with and should make allowances for people who are from a different generation or social group. Nobody would recommend that you text your grandmother with a battery of abbreviations, random punctuation, slang and emojis – just apply the same level of sensitivity to all your recipients and don’t let a rogue full stop drive you into a downward spiral of paranoid over-interpretation.

Effective communication is about good manners, the ability to think about another person and speak directly to them, in their language and idiom. This ability, now that we are overwhelmed with new modes of communication, is now more important than ever. Remember, flagrant disregard of these general principles will lead to confusion and irritation and may actually cause offence.


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