7 Punctuation Secrets to Influence Communication
Punctuation is so much more than the squiggly lines amongst words. Punctuation affects how words are read, and how sentences flow and sound. It is important for every writer in any setting (professional, personal, or academic) to understand that words are not everything. Particularly since technology mediates so much of our communication, it’s more often than not that people read what we have to say rather than hear it from us in person. Emails and text messages make up the bulk of communication in many settings, at work and at play.
That’s why it’s incredibly important to make punctuation work for us. Relying on autocorrect and spell check is not enough — good punctuation creates a better impression and makes your communication more influential and persuasive.
With that in mind, let’s look at 7 punctuation secrets that anyone can use to influence communication.
Secret 1: Connect ideas with a semicolon
This is a semicolon ;
A semicolon connects ideas and makes the tone of your writing sound professional, gentle, and reasonable. Consider the difference between these two examples:
1. I can’t complete the work by Monday. I have to attend a family event in Hong Kong over the weekend.
2. I can’t complete the work by Monday; I have to attend a family event in Hong Kong over the weekend.
Example 2 sounds direct, but much less harsh than Example 1. Example 1 could come across as rude, but Example 2 shows how a semicolon can make something sound more gentle and reasonable. This strikes a good balance between being professional, and being accommodating and understanding.
Secret 2: De-emphasizing words
Using parentheses can help you to de-emphasize something that you have to include in your communication.
In the following example, the writer is de-emphasizing the cost of the contribution by putting it in parentheses:
Please make your contribution to the fund for our colleague’s farewell party ($20 each) by Friday
This helps to soften a message, when you don’t want a certain bit of information to become too glaring in a piece of communication.
Secret 3: Emphasizing words
Using the em-dash can help to emphasize something that you want your reader to take notice of. Consider this example:
When you have finished dinner — after saying goodbye to everyone — give me a call.
This shows that the reader should pay particular attention to the act of saying goodbye to everyone, and that it’s important to ensure that everyone has said their goodbyes before making the call.
Secret 4: Use the humble full-stop
Many of us tend to overuse punctuation such as exclamation marks (!) and ellipses (…) when writing emails and text messages. The humble full-stop, when used instead, can create a highly professional impression by making your words seem calmer. This makes you, the writer, seem more in control.
Look at this example of an email:
Thanks for explaining the approval process to me yesterday! It was really helpful! Have a good day!!
Then, look at how the email with full-stops used instead:
Thanks for explaining the approval process to me yesterday. It was really helpful. Have a good day!
Secret 5: Use apostrophes correctly
Apostrophes are very commonly misused, possibly because we tend to rely on our smartphones to correct us. However, effective communication means taking control of what you say and not relying on technology to make decisions. Learning the correct use of apostrophes will help you create a better impression with your writing. A good trick is to always imagine that you are writing to someone who is very particular about punctuation, and make your punctuation as perfect as possible. It’s the same principle as dressing well for a job interview.
An apostrophe is used:
• to show that something belongs to someone
• to contract (shorten) words
Here are some examples of correct and incorrect apostrophe usage:
Many CEOs gathered at the meeting. (correct)
Many CEO’s gathered at the meeting. (wrong)
My phone drains its battery too fast. (correct)
My phone drains it’s battery too fast. (wrong)
This is yours. (correct)
This is your’s. (wrong)
Secret 6: Use commas for clarity
A comma can create a thoughtful pause after a word, making the word mean a lot more.
In the first sentence, the two attributes (intelligent and intriguing) are given equal importance. However, the use of the comma in the second sentence makes the reader pause after the word intelligent, making it slightly more important in the reader’s mind.
1. Seth Godin is an intelligent and intriguing writer.
2. Seth Godin is an intelligent, intriguing writer.
Secret 7: Quotation marks are for quotations
Sometimes called inverted commas, quotation marks show direct speech:
“Thanks for the gift,” said Brenda.
However, when you use a quotation mark / inverted comma incorrectly, you may be being unintentionally sarcastic.
In this sentence, the writer is being sarcastic with the word free.
What sort of “free” gift was that? I had to pay an activation charge for it.
So, when you say something like this, you may create the impression that you don’t mean what you say:
“Free” entry for everyone under 12
If you want to emphasize something, put it in bold, or in a different color. Or, you could use a larger font size to emphasize it. Just don’t use quotation marks unless it’s an actual quote.
Bonus Secret #8: It’s okay to break some rules, as long as you have a good reason to do so.
No language rule is absolute. Especially in creative circles, writers are always pushing the boundaries of conventional language rules and creating new and exciting ways of expressing things. It’s perfectly fine to do that — in fact, that’s what makes a language grow richer and more interesting. However, it’s still important to understand that conventions are necessary in professional settings. Just as you would wear conservative clothes to work and save your most creative style for weekends, it’s better to use the rules of punctuation in formal settings. It just makes you seem more trustworthy and capable, and that makes your communication get taken more seriously.
For more trivia and examples on punctuation, check out this presentation.