This book is for those of you who have to write at work and want clear,
commonsense guidance on punctuation. It concerns the usages that
are simple, useful, and appropriate in workplace writing, where the
chief goal of any document is to convey information as efficiently as
possible. Other sorts of writing may seek to enthrall, beguile, amuse,
or contribute to the body of human knowledge. But busy executives
are not hoping to be enraptured or moved to giggles by an audit report.
They want to know, right away, whether they need to take action. And
one reason why corporate policies aren’t written in Shakespearean
verse is that readers of policies are neither seeking nor expecting a lit-
erary experience. They simply want to know, in the clearest language
possible, what their rights and responsibilities are.
Certainly, in the writing we do at work, our readers deserve this
“clearest language possible.” I think it’s healthy to take pride in your
writing, and sensible to care about it, but wise to realize that the main
aim of style in workplace writing is to make things easy for the reader.
I’m going to show you how punctuation can contribute to simplicity of
style. In practical terms, the marks are nothing more than tools for
tightening the nuts and bolts of the airy stuff we call meaning. They’re
as unglamorous and mundane as any collection of wrenches and
screwdrivers—and once we get rid of the stupefying half-truths and
fallacies about them, they’re just as easy to use.
Why So Many Professionals Are Befuddled by
No one is born with a sense of where to put a comma. The kitten
knows how to pounce, but the child lacks instinct for hyphenating his
compound adjectives. We all have to learn how to punctuate, and that
means we’re at the mercy of those who teach us.
After a quarter-century of teaching writing in the workplace, I’m
no longer surprised by the sloppy and confusing punctuation I see in
most business, technical, scientific, and regulatory writing. What still
surprises me is the number of people who insist that they never re-
ceived any instruction in the matter. They do not say they never got
any “good” instruction or any “reasonable” instruction; they do not say
they were confused to the point of paralysis by inconsistencies in what
they were taught. What they say is that they were never taught how to
use the marks. And the frequency of this complaint is increasing. In
the United States it is possible these days to proceed through high
school, college, and graduate school with one’s instructors encourag-
ing the joys of expression and assuming that teaching clarity of expres-
sion is someone else’s responsibility.
This is not to say that punctuation is never taught along the way,
because it usually is—in ways that make a practical man’s hair stand
on end. Often, instructors explain only a few crude and elementary us-
ages, leaving unexplored the numerous options essential to a good
writer. (I may be expert at wielding a sledgehammer, but if that’s the
only tool I know how to use, what do I do when I have to extract a
splinter?) The guidance writers receive from one year to the next can
be slapdash and whimsical, governed by the individual instructor’s per-
sonal preference, taste, and overall feel for what constitutes good writ-
ing. From one year to the next, this guidance can be conflicting and
even contradictory. As a freshman one may learn that using parenthe-
ses is practically an immoral act; as a sophomore that parentheses are
useful, but that dashes are villainous; and as a junior that dashes are
Punctuation at Work

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