Try not to think of punctuation as a necessary evil. Think of its:
– practical use – as a series of signposts to readers, indicating where ideas begin and end, where to pause, where to place emphasis, who is speaking, etc.
– creative use – to assist in conveying the tone of your communication, to add humour and interest and increase the impact of your sentences
– correct use – to avoid misleading the reader or creating an impression of you and your company as unprofessional
Commas are a crucial form of punctuation, allowing you to extend the length and expand the content of a sentence.
Commas are used mainly in the following ways:
– as a simple pause in a sentence (often doing the same job as ‘and’ or ‘but’)
– as a dividing mechanism, separating out a clause that relates to the main topic
– separating items in a list.
The following examples demonstrate the above points:
The company is planning expansion, building upon the successes of last year.
The company’s planned expansion, announced earlier in the year, may affect local property values.
The planned expansion will entail growth in manufacturing, maintenance, warehousing and transportation.
Don’t forget the second comma in a pair (as in the second example) and note that, in a list you should not place a comma after the penultimate item (as in the third example).
There is a common belief that you should never use a comma with ‘and’ or ‘but’. Like most ‘rules’, this can be broken. The test should be whether the meaning is clear.
Look at this example:
The planned expansion is likely to receive local support, and national backing too.
This sentence could be rewritten to avoid the ‘problem’, but it does work as above, with the comma aiding emphasis.
Semi-colons are often considered to be ‘more than a comma, less than a full stop’. Semi-colons mark a significant break in a sentence, usually dividing two separate, but related, ideas.
We have been exporting to the Far East for more than a decade; this year we expect Japan to be our largest overseas market.
In this example there is a clear link between the two parts. A pause created by a comma would probably be insufficient. A full stop might be too strong.
The managing director will be giving the keynote address;
she will be covering all the points discussed at the shareholders’ meeting.
Here, the second part of the sentence would not work well on its own. The word ‘she’ is a pronoun, standing in place of a noun, in this case ‘the managing director’. Linking the two elements using a semi-colon makes it immediately clear to whom the word ‘she’ refers.
Like any skill, your writing will improve with practice. This is especially true of forms of punctuation like the semicolon, where there are no right and wrong uses – it is a matter of choice.
Semi-colons can sometimes be used to subdivide long lists in a sentence – but you will probably be better off using bullet point lists:
Wright’s subjects in this exhibition cover cities from three continents:
Bombay, Calcutta and Bangkok; Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and London; Chicago and New York; from Asia, Europe and North America respectively.
When asked about the value of the roadshow, the Marketing Manager, Bob Curran, had the following comments: “It’s been exciting and exhausting, and worth every penny the company has spent.”
Colons can also introduce displayed matter (outside the sentence) such as bullet point lists, indented quotes or equations and diagrams.
All cashiers are reminded of the difference between net and gross values: net value + 17.5% (VAT) = gross value
A colon and a dash (:-) is hardly ever used in modern business communications. A colon does the job by itself.
Note too that speech can be introduced with a comma instead of the colon.
Ending a sentence
It is important to let your reader know when a sentence has finished. This may sound like an obvious rule but it is often overlooked. The three most common ways are:
– full stop: usually placed at the completion of all other text and punctuation
– exclamation mark: should only be used very sparingly and probably never in formal business communications.
They should appear at the end of sentences and do not need an accompanying full stop. Exclamation marks add emphasis to statements: “The company’s new product range is now on display. Don’t miss it!”
– question mark: should come at the end of any sentence that includes a question, whether direct or rhetorical.
There was one question we all wanted to ask. What will the Chancellor do in the budget? Isn’t about time the Chanceller thought about the plight of small businesses?
Sometimes a sentence might end with the full stop (exclamation mark or question mark) before inverted commas.
The following is correct:
The Chancellor responded by saying: “There is nothing I’d like more than to give financial help to small firms, but it’s not within my power at the present time.”
Items in parentheses are a separated part of a sentence. The separation is normally created by commas, dashes or brackets. When inserting words in parentheses it is important to ensure that the sentence still functions correctly without them. Commas, dashes and brackets work in different ways.
The C62 model, available in green and blue, will be released in February.
The C62 model – a mere 13 months from conception to completion – will be released in February.
The C62 model (the idea is the brainchild of Sir Samuel McLeod who later went on to become head of engineering at CONCET) will be released in February.
In the first example the extra information is closely and directly related to the main information of the sentence, that ‘The C62 model will be released in February’ In the second example the information in parentheses is linked, but stands alone – and stands out – much more distinctively. In the third example the information in parentheses is removed from the main point, but the writer still wishes to include it because it lends interest or colour. In every case the sentence still works without the text in parentheses. Brackets are also useful for essential or interesting facts such as dates (born 1955), statistics (population 200,000) and explanations (excluding VAT).
The apostrophe is one element of punctuation which can only be used either correctly or incorrectly; there is no room for creativity. Apostrophes are used to indicate:
– that a letter (or letters) have been omitted
I’m sure that the sales team is wrong on this one, but they’re a hard bunch to convince.
The Chief Executive’s view is that the market will pick up; the directors’ bonuses may be paid after all.
The above examples demonstrate the basic rules. Remember, there is just one Chief Executive (singular) so the word is followed by ‘s. There are several directors (plural) so the word is followed by just the apostrophe ‘; the s has been left off.
There are some other points to note:
– when a word in the singular ends in s (Harrods, Jones, etc.) then use just the apostrophe ‘ Harrods’, etc.) to show possession
– never use an apostrophe for the plural of numbers or initials (1960s, not 1960’s and MPs, not MP’s)
– it’s means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ and its means ‘belonging to it’.
To confirm you have got it right:
An MP’s car is one of the few perks that MPs receive. ✔
It’s these MPs’ cars that are in the way. ✔
Bishops’ opinion of MPs has not changed since the ‘70s. ✔
The hyphen is not strictly a punctuation mark, but a means of making words more easy to read. Hyphens visibly link words that are bonded in their meaning. There are no hard and fast rules to govern the use of the hyphen, but below is a set of guidelines that will work for you every time.
Following these rules will ensure consistency and save you time:
– Use hyphens after prefixes such as neo-, sub-, quasi- etc, unless your dictionary shows them as joined. These prefixes do not make sense on their own.
– Use hyphens for words that need to be grouped together such as paint-by-numbers, 18-year-old, state-of-the-art when they relate to another word (eg. 18-year-old car, state-of-the-art computer, etc.).
– Use hyphens for describing words that are linked in their meaning such as wholly-owned, project-based, exchange-listed etc, when these relate to another word (eg. Wholly-owned subsidiary or project-based example).
– Do not use hyphens for simple pairings of adjectives and nouns such as Chief Executive, primary industry, client server, etc., or for linking two describing words such as totally different, vastly expensive, etc.
This example may help you understand the difference between the last two points.
The second-hand computer was user friendly. ✔
The user-friendly computer was second hand. ✔
Most ‘rules’ are there to help you; they promote consistency.
Inverted commas (quotation marks)
In writing we can use either single or double inverted commas (or quotation marks).
Double inverted commas are mostly used for direct speech:
“We must create a bigger impact,” he explained, “in both home and overseas markets.”
Single inverted commas have a variety of uses:
– reported speech: The focus group was said to have produced the ‘best ever’ set of results.
– words that are being used (deliberately) in a different context from normal: We consider it best that this idea is ‘put on ice’ until market conditions change.
– specialist words introduced for the first time: We will reproduce some of the illustrations as ‘duotones’ to create the right effect.
– to suggest irony or a pun: The union had some views concerning the management’s ‘commitment’ to equal pay.
Other punctuation marks
There are several other punctuation marks that you can use to add greater clarity and interest to your writing.
Dashes are longer than hyphens. Dashes separate words and hyphens pull words together. Dashes should strictly be called ‘en-dashes’ as they are the width of the ‘n’ character.
They are normally the key strokes option + hyphen or created by alt + hyphen. Dashes can be used in pairs to separate out items in parentheses (see page 18) or singly to pull out a phrase that requires emphasis:
The exceptionally quiet spell in August meant that sales were well down – by 20 per cent overall.
An ellipsis is the three dots that can be used to add an afterthought to a sentence.
Sales were well down on last year, with a 20 per cent drop in some cases … and it could have been a lot worse.
There is little difference between the dash and ellipsis in the above examples. Use the dash where you wish to make an impact and the ellipsis for adding less vital pieces of information. Note also that ellipsis is also used to indicate that words have been deliberately omitted from a quote:
‘This has been a great year … the best on record.’
Full points often cause confusion. Your company may have a house style that you have to follow, or you may have a way of working that suits you. If you are in doubt, here is a rule that will work every time:
– Do not use full points for capital letter abbreviations such as NATO, UNESCO, MP, BT, VAT, etc.
– Use full points at the end of abbreviations that end in a lower case character such as eg., ie., etc., Dr., Prof., etc. (except when following numbers such as 22km, 100 ha, 50th, 42nd, etc.).
Remember to address people as they have addressed themselves. If they write F.R.S. or Mr, it is polite to reply with similar punctuation.