Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Punctuation – Does it Really Matter?

by Rose Strong

Although I won’t claim to be a punctuation expert, something I heard on the BBC World News not too long ago made me spin around in my kitchen, almost spilling my morning coffee. The district of Devon  has voted to do away with the apostrophe in its street-name signs, claiming that they were confusing.

First, my perception of the people of England (after one season of Downton Abbey, of course) is they are seemingly bound by tradition and the proper use of punctuation would be no exception. 
When I get puzzled about where to place a semi colon or how to use parenthesis, I check my Little Brown Handbook, copyright, 1983 or seek information online, as things have changed a bit over the years on the punctuation front. This article explains some very interesting amendments  to how the roles of certain marks in writing have evolved.

Bewilderment wracked at my foggy, morning brain for just a moment during the broadcast until I heard the journalist interview a professional proofreader. She said she shudders at the thought of the town being ‘apostrophe-less.’ That gave me a bit more faith in my view of the United Kingdom and their adherence to convention as a country.

Then I thought what it would be like to go through life without these small dots, dashes, specks and combinations thereof on a page. These symbols that we learned of as youngsters in school are part of the backbone of communication. When I read them on a page, I don’t consciously say to myself at the end of a sentence: STOP, but I know that’s what a period means. It’s like blinking or breathing; you just do it without thinking, but if you can’t do it, it is clearly evident and noticeable.

The following are a few examples of business or street signs with apostrophes, placed incorrectly. What do you think?

  • Terrace parking and sheriffs van’s only. It should be: Terrace parking and sheriff's vans only.
  • Max say’s you must be 48 inches tall to ride alone. Better written as: Max says: You must be 48 inches tall to ride alone.
  • Come in for health and beauty at it’s best. Correctly stated: Come in for health and beauty at its best.
  • Fine assorted tea’s. This would be better as: Fine, assorted teas.
  • You’re holiday is in safe hands. Written Correctly: Your holiday is in safe hands.

What would be more confusing than reading through a sentence without the comma to tell you to pause for just the slightest second? How could one express on the page, emotion of any kind without an exclamation point or the ellipsis?  Of course it would be sheer bedlam for the cast of a play to try and act out their scenes without even a hint of these marks in the script. Punctuation expresses meaning and putting the dots, dashes and slashes in the wrong place can change an entire sentence as this small article about National Punctuation Day  that occurs every September 24, explains.

From author of the bestselling guide, Eats Shoots & Leaves and Eats Shoots & Leaves, Illustrated Edition, Lynne Truss, comes The Girl’s like Spaghetti , a follow up guide for children about the lowly apostrophe. Well, this is one book I’m putting on my Amazon Wishlist as I’m sure I could learn a thing or two. Maybe the district of Devon should get it too. Punctuation, when used effectively , gives us the ability to set a tone in a story, communicate effectively and wage a crusade against confusion caused by the apostrophe.

Do you have any favorite punctuation blunders? I’d love to hear them.


Anonymous said...

Good posting Rose! Punctuation does matter because it communicates professionalism and attention to detail. I was editing something just yesterday where a few close calls appeared. How, if at all, would you change these sentences: (1) The company needed to access financing at the "worst possible time": shortly before the fall of 2008 when Lehman Brothers failed. (Should the colon go inside the quotation mark? I think so.) (2) Newco's audited financial statements are the responsibility of Newco's management, not Oldco's. (Keep the possessive "s" in the references to management? Are they necessary?) The point is, there are a lot of hard-and-fast rules that are straightforward to apply, and then there are the "close calls" which require some research and, every now and then, a judgment call.

Unknown said...

Hi Doug! Thank you for your comment and your questions on punctuation. As I said in my post, I’m not an expert and often lean on references for help, especially on those close calls you mention, but I’ll try and give you some suggestions.

In sentence one: I’d probably change it a bit. Not sure why you have to use the quotes for the worst possible time and according to my Little, Brown Handbook, one should avoid using quotation marks where they’re not necessary as their principal function is to enclose direct quotations from speech and from writing.

Your sentence could be written as: The company needed to access financing at the worst possible time: shortly before the fall of 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed.

For sentence two: I think it’s fine other than using the name Newco a second time. I’m just avoiding the redundancy.

I’d write the sentence as follows: Newco’s audited financial statements are their management’s responsibility and not that of Oldco’s.