The first two probably indicate a writer’s highly personal attempt to
emphasize a word; the last two look like devil-may-care attempts to
emphasize a phrase. But we don’t see such constructions in everyday
workplace writing, and because we do not see them, we must pause
and ponder them. Three hyphens? Hmmm. Is that supposed to be more
emphatic than a dash? I didn’t know we could do that. Is it right? Can I
use it too? Should I be using it? And those three dots. Hmmm. Is that sup-
posed to create suspense? Has something been left out? Is the writer trying
to suggest he’s struggling to find the right words? Hmmm.
And so, instead of reading, the reader ruminates. Ruminating is ex-
cellent if we are cows, but if we are readers we should not be com-
pelled to chew and re-chew. Your punctuation should call no attention
6. Punctuation follows the arrangement of words.
In English, both meaning and emphasis depend on the order of words.
The dog chased the cat and The cat chased the dog consist of exactly
the same words, but the different order creates different meanings. Put
the words in the right order before you punctuate. When you’re the
writer, you’re the only one who knows what the “right” order is, both
for your intended meaning and for emphasis.
The four examples below demonstrate one aspect of emphasis.
Note how shifting the grammatical subject (Redskins, Giants, attorney,
contract) shifts the reader’s focus.
in the Washington Post, The Redskins beat the Giants.
in the New York Times, The Giants lost to the Redskins.
emphasizing “attorney”: The attorney is reviewing the contract.
emphasizing “contract”: The contract is being reviewed by
What You Need to Know First: 19 Principles
Intention dictates the order of words, and the order of words
dictates whether to punctuate.
Consider these two sentences:
Dr. Vesuvio suffered a midlife crisis and bought an Aston Martin.
Dr. Vesuvio, in the midst of a midlife crisis, bought an Aston Martin.
In the first example, I have structured the thought in such a way that
every word in the sentence is necessary for my intended meaning. An-
other way of putting it is that nothing can be cut from the sentence
without damaging my intent. In the second example, I am signaling
something quite different. This time, I have arranged the words to let
you know that my primary intent is Dr. Vesuvio bought an Aston Martin.
This time, I want you to understand that in the midst of a midlife crisis
is parenthetical—that is, it’s just an extra bit of information; it’s not es-
sential to my primary intent. The phrase could be cut from the sen-
tence, and thus it must be punctuated.
It’s important to remember who’s in charge. The writer is in charge
of figuring out what he wants to say, of deciding how much emphasis
to place on any idea, and of engineering the right words into the ap-
propriate order. But once he has structured his order of words, that
order of words is in charge of punctuation. In the examples below, note
how punctuation changes as the order of words changes.
one subject, two verbs: The police stormed the building and
subdued the terrorists.
two independent clauses: The police stormed the building, and the
terrorists quickly surrendered.
one subject, two verbs, and a The police stormed the building
non-interruptive phrase: and subdued the terrorists without firing
Punctuation at Work