Punctuation, like underwear, serves an important function: It holds disparate elements together without drawing attention to itself. At least most of the time.
Punctuation should never get in the way of content. Take the period for example. It is used for complete sentences (with a noun and verb) and lets the reader take a breath. Perhaps the biggest problem I face as an editor is long run-on sentences. Here is a not-so-recent (and cleverly disguised) example that begs to be split in two:
Following the gift from Maurice and Madam Magician, the most beautiful gift in the prince’s kingdom and one of the most beautiful gifts ever to a royal kingdom in the Scottish Lands, Royal Prince Henry received an outpouring of beautiful gifts from merchant businesses such as Robert Down’s shop and Junior Robert Down’s shop, which provided a most precious gift, and from individual townspeople and Prince Henry’s own serf and slave production facilities.
My kingdom for another period!
In advertising, the period is often used to provide emphasis: Stop. Look. Listen. But like anything useful, it can be abused: “Doing It Right. Before Your Eyes.”
Commas, parentheses, dashes and semi-colons bring clarity and order to a sentence. In short, commas allow for a short pause in a series, and they can be used to separate two simple sentences. Semi-colons can be used to separate two sentences, but they are kind of prissy and, to me, they violate the “not drawing attention to itself” maxim. But they have to be used to separate series containing internal commas:
We deliver extensive information to stakeholders through letters, newsletters and social media; we print yard signs, mailers and fliers; and we seek out endorsements from state and federal officials.
Commas, dashes and parentheses can be used to set off nonessential phrases (information that might be useful but isn’t necessary). While parentheses act as an aside, and commas as a pause, dashes do it with a flourish: She was the love of my life – the source of all that was good – and an excellent mouser.
(Clearly, I’m partial to dashes.)
As for colons … if you’ve read this far, you’ve seen them in use. And exclamation points! In public relations and advertising, we use a lot of these!
Or course, this has been a very cursory look at punctuation. There are many, many more rules; they are tiresome but necessary and too complicated to address in a blog. I’ve neglected apostrophes, quotation marks and hyphens (because they service words) and question marks (which I hope are self-explanatory).
Instead, I’ve focused on how simple punctuation can enhance sentences. In sum:
- Generally, use periods to break up complete sentences, but don’t abuse them.
- Use commas to offer gentle breaks in the action.
- Use parentheses to whisper to your neighbor.
- Avoid semi-colons if at all possible – they don’t make you look smarter!
- Embrace the dash as an airy way of setting off information.
- And consider the exclamation point as a treat you deserve only rarely.