CareersCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: Surprisingly Powerful Punctuation

By Susan de la Vergne

One of the things that makes engineers good at their jobs is their love of certainty and their determination to find an answerthe right answer to whatever the problem is. Being willing to pursue tough problems to the end, no matter how challenging, is a great characteristic to have because engineering work is usually deterministic, not ambiguous. At some level, it poses a logic and/or math problem for which there is an answer.

As you have no doubt noticed, communication isn’t like that. Instead of one right answer, there are many. Unlike, say, debugging a programwhere you find and fix a culprit hiding in the codea sentence that needs repair often has causes that are less obvious. In fact, there are usually many possibilities for fixing a sentence, and the fixes are nuanced, not straightforward, anything from choosing one of half a dozen suitable synonyms to rearranging words in a phrase to shift the emphasis ever so slightly. (Yes, often you’ll find more than one way to fix code, but the remedies usually either work or they don’t. Not as true of writing, where interpretation rules the day.)

For engineers who enjoy the relentless pursuit of a correct, unambiguous answer, communicating wellwith all its nuance and uncertaintycan be a challenge.

But here’s a smattering of good news: there is one area of written communication that is not subject to whim and artistry, and that is punctuation. Instead of the murky, debatable judgment calls involved in much of writing, punctuation is rule-governed and consistent. Learn it once, use it always. No exceptions, no shades of gray. Just clear, straightforward, inarguable rules that clarify meaning and organize ideas.

Periods, commas, and such may seem to you like a trivial part of writing. After all, punctuation occupies only a small part of any sentence. But it’s surprisingly powerful. Maybe you haven’t thought of it that way before, which is perhaps why you haven’t paid much attention to ityet.

With thanks to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, let me share with you a couple of examples of the power of punctuation.

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Take a look at this under-punctuated sentence:

The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the river-bank.

What does it mean? That the driver swam to the river-bank or the vehicle did? The mere insertion of one item of punctuation clarifies who the swimmer is:

The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank, and swam to the river-bank.

Take a look at this one:

 Let’s eat Grandpa.

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 Let’s eat, Grandpa.

From Grandpa’s point of view, the latter is a far better idea.

Basic Punctuation Toolkit

I have friends who are passionate about home repair and remodeling. I look at their hundreds of tools and wonder what most of them are. I, on the other hand, am not at all handy. My toolkit is basic: a wrench, a hammer, some pliers, a few screwdrivers, and a level. For most of what I need to do, those tools are enough, and I know how to use them.

For most of what you need to do as a business/technical writer, you’ll have it made if you master the pliers, hammer, wrench, and screwdrivers of the punctuation toolkitthat is, the comma, period, apostrophe, and colon. And so herewith I offer you a super-condensed refresher about how to use these four essential tools, consistently, every time, to ensure your writing is clear, direct, and professional.

I promise to make this faster, more relevant, and less painful than the punctuation instructions you got from your ninth-grade English teacher.

Lists and Logical Connections: Using Colons

Ever noticed that “colon” ( : ) is spelled the same as that digestive part of your anatomy? No relation.

Aside from that, here are two things to know about colons:

  1. Colons precede lists.

There are errors on three website pages: Home, About, and Services.

If you are late to work, we assume one of two things: you quit without notice or you died.

  1. A colon sets up a definition:

Let me clarify the term “degraded performance” in this context: response time slower than .0005.

                Or an explanation:

That vendor never delivers on time: that’s why we don’t like to use them.

There’s also this thing ; the semicolon. My advice is don’t use it. You can write clearly and well without it, so I suggest you just forget you ever saw one. It’s not a screwdriver. It’s a bench-top wood lathe with a sander. The only thing to remember about the semicolon, aside from not to use it, is that it is not to be used interchangeably with the colon. You wouldn’t use a lathe to do a screwdriver’s job.

Omitting Letters and Ownership

Apostrophes serve two purposes: one is to indicate a letter has been omitted, and the other is to indicate ownership. (Notice the use of our new friend the colon in this sentence!)

The word “apostrophe” is Greek and it means, literally, “turning away.” In other words, we’re turning away a letter or two that are trying to appear in a word. You have to stretch your imagination a bit to capture the essence of this linguistic nuance, but suffice it to say the apostrophe is taking the place of a missing letter.

Words like don’t, isn’t, and can’t need apostrophes to take the place of “o” and “no” in do not, is not, and cannot. I predict that, before long, dont, isnt, and cant will become accepted standards because language and its rules evolve over time. But we aren’t there yet. (Notice that I didn’t say we arent there yet.)

Most business writers aren’t confused about apostrophes as replacements for missing letters. It’s possession that causes problems. Let’s start with this:

The system’s reports. (One system, many reports.)

The systems’ reports. (Many systems, many reports.)

And then there are these:

It’s means it is.

Its is possessive. It’s an alligator, and its mother is also an alligator.

And its’ does not exist.

Again from Lynne Truss’s book, “I apologize if you already know this, but … many people do not. Why else would they open a large play area for children, hang up a sign saying ‘Giant Kid’s Playground,’ and then wonder why everyone stays away from it? (Answer: everyone is scared of the Giant Kid.)”

The problems with apostrophes are usually that they’re inserted where they’re not needed: we have meeting’s on Monday’s (should be meetings and Mondays). To make a noun plural, just attach an “s” and be done with it.

Another example of the problem: a sign on a lab door says Inspector’s Only. Inspector’s only what?

Lists and Breaks

We all know commas go between items on a list.

The product’s new features included improved usability, extended battery life, and a glitzy new cover.

But where else do commas go? They’re used to separate two sentences within one sentence (your ninth-grade English teacher said “to separate two independent clauses”) and to set off nonessential phrases within a sentence.

Here’s the first example, two separate sentences in one:

Debug logic will reside in a separate domain, and it will only be activated when the product is operating in debug mode.

Notice there’s an “and” in the middle of the two complete, separate, stand-alone sentences, and there’s a comma in front of the “and.” That’s where it goes: in front of “and.” Another example:

Testing is falling behind schedule, and we do not know when we will be able to complete the execution of the remaining tests.

You should also use a comma to set off nonessential phrases. If you can lift the phrase out of the sentence and the sentence still makes sense grammatically, put commas around it.

The manager, who had been working at the company four years, was promoted.

If you remove “who had been working at the company four years,” the sentence still makes sense.

Of course, setting off a phrase this way can be another one of those powerful punctuation moments:

The CTO, said the project manager, is misinformed.

The CTO said the project manager is misinformed.

And Finally…

In England, they call it a “full stop,” but in the United States we call it a “period.” Personally, I like “full stop” because it says what it does: stop. When you come to the end of a thought (expressed in a complete sentence), you come to a full stop, and you mark it with a full stop, or a period, depending on which side of the pond you were on when you learned English.

The bigger danger in business writing is stringing together thoughts with commas or dashes rather than marking them (correctly and consistently) using periods.

When we come to the end of a sentence, we put a period there, and when we come to the end of an article, as we are now, we do the same.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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