The Importance of Correct Punctuation

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Words are the raw ingredients of communication. When we speak, we use inflection and pauses (together with facial expression and body language when we have visual contact) to add layers of meaning to the words. On the page, punctuation serves the same purpose.

Just as tone of voice may vary to suit the speaker’s intent, so might punctuation. Compare these two examples to see what a difference punctuation can make.

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?
* * *
Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

The exact same words convey diametrically different messages with a change of punctuation. In this case the difference was intentional. In real life (read "your writing") inadvertent omissions or errors may cause unintentional confusion. It’s worth investing a little time in boning up on punctuation basics to avoid mishaps and misunderstandings.

That leads me to some shameless self-promotion. One of the unique features of my book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, is a brief, but comprehensive guide to all the punctuation you need for writing life stories, essays or memoir. It’s conveniently arranged in table format with brief examples to show how each rule works. That chapter also includes an overview of basic grammar and other ways to avoid confusion and convey the message you intend.

You don’t need to buy the book unless you want to take advantage of the comprehensive set of other writing tools it includes. You can track down the punctuation information for free on any of hundreds of Internet sites, or you may already have a book that covers it extensively. The advantage of my book is having it all at your fingertips on just a few pages. However you get it, whatever your resource, do take a few minutes to bone up and give your words the polish they deserve.

Write now: pull out a story you wrote a few months ago. Check to see if all the commas are right, using whatever resources you have available, web or print. How about the dialogue? (You did use dialogue, right?) Is it punctuated correctly?


Creativity Coach-Sherrie said...

I plan to share the punctuation lesson with my new students (grade 10-12). Thanks for re-posting that.
I was trying to have your tips on my blog, but it didn't work. Somehow I ended up with Mike's Writing tips, which I had already posted.
You can check out my blog at:

Sharon Lippincott said...

High school students should really get a kick out of these examples -- I bet they love your class. Mike's tips are also great. Thanks for stopping by and letting us know about your blog.

Shaddy said...

I've never seen two identical paragraphs, punctuated in two different ways, that communicate opposite meanings.

Thank you for sharing the importance of punctuation in this post. I think I have a pretty good handle on it, but one never knows it all, that's for sure.

Sharon Lippincott said...

In the interests of full disclosure, I should have stated that I did not create these two paragraphs. They float around cyberspace via e-mail, and are probably on umpty sites. I've just never seen a better example of the power of punctuation.

Karen Walker said...

I agree, Sharon. This is an excellent example of the importance of correct punctuation. It is not my strong suit and I look to others for help in this area. Thanks for being one of those people.

Sharon Lippincott said...

It's a wise writer Karen, who relies on multiple sets of eyes.