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Does Punctuation Really Matter in Email?

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So much depends on choosing the correct mark of punctuation at the correct time. Each little period, each hyphen, each dash conveys meaning to the reader. And when the conventions of punctuation are ignored, readers tend to become confused. As I teach every single one of my clients, the point of all business writing is clarity. If a document--whether email, letter, memo, or report--isn't clear, no business is going to get done. Period.

Writers have been confused by the comma for ages. Either they overuse commas or underuse them. Either way, using too many or too few can cause confusion. In particular, confusion often occurs with whether to use commas after introductory phrases and whether to use commas when listing a series of items. Read on for answers to both questions.

Commas after introductory phrases

The way we use punctuation over time influences how meaning is applied to those marks of punctuation. The comma causes a tremendous amount of controversy in writing and carries an enormous amount of weight. Look, for example, at the sentence below: "She sat in a caf? drinking coffee, wearing clogs and a scarf upon her head."

What do you see? No, really; what do you SEE? Do you see a woman with clogs on her head along with a scarf? That's exactly what you should see. Based on the punctuation (and wording) the image is that of a woman with shoes on her head. This sentence can be made clearer simply by changing the punctuation and moving the "and": "She sat in a caf? drinking coffee and wearing clogs, a scarf upon her head."

How about leaving a comma out? Does meaning become unclear without a comma? Consider this: "When Margaret ate pizza dripped from her chin."

Not a very pretty sight, eh? Add a comma, and you'll know what was dripping from her chin (though what she was actually eating is still unclear): "When Margaret ate, pizza dripped from her chin."

Commas in series

What about using the comma when listing items in series? Do you put the comma before the "and" or do you leave it out? "We'll be preparing the budget, writing the proposal, and presenting the data at the conference."

If you put it in, you are a fan of the serial comma right along with me! If you left it out because you remember being told the "and" replaced the comma, then you might be struggling with what I'm going to say next: the serial comma helps to clarify information for the reader. When the serial comma is used, the reader can identify distinct entities in sentences easier. Hold on! No rebellion just yet. Let me give you an example where the serial comma can help information become clear: "My favorite meals are macaroni cheese and crackers peanut butter jelly and toast and fruit."

Based on what you see here, how many foods do I like? Five? Three? Depends on where the commas are. Take a look:

"My favorite meals are macaroni, cheese and crackers, peanut butter, jelly and toast, and fruit." (5)

"My favorite meals are macaroni, cheese and crackers, peanut butter, jelly, and toast and fruit." (5)

"My favorite meals are macaroni, cheese, and crackers; peanut butter, jelly, and toast; and fruit." (3)

Without the comma distinctly separating each of the entities in the series, the reader is left to decide on the combinations of foods that make up the meal. Putting the commas in--especially the serial comma--helps the reader know in what combinations I like them.

Do you notice the semicolons in the last example? The rule is when an item in a series already contains a comma, use semicolons to distinctly separate the items.

Some folks who don't like the serial comma will say that in the above examples they agree with using it to clarify entities; however, they will opt not to use it when the meaning might appear transparent. Here's a caution for you: readers pick up patterns in punctuation very quickly. If the patterns are consistent, they have very little problem getting meaning. But if the patterns vary, they can quickly become confused and begin to wonder what the various uses are and how they should interpret the data.

Our goal, as I mentioned at the start of this article, is complete clarity for our readers. Clarity overcomes misunderstandings and helps to establish our credibility as authors. Our readers trust us and will cooperate with us to the degree that we have credibility with them. If we're inconsistent, our credibility is damaged; then they may not be so willing to work with us. So much depends upon the comma...

About the Author:

Dr. Tracy Peterson Turner works with organizations that want to turn their managers into leaders and with leaders who want to get their messages heard. She is an expert in both written and verbal communication and conducts presentations and workshops to help individuals and corporations meet their communication goals.

Visit Tracy on the web at Email her at

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