might notice that the end of the paragraph also differs from the origi-
nal. It breaks into two the long single sentence of the original, and I’ve
done that to focus your attention on the important summarizing state-
ment beginning with In short. When you have a strong argument, you
want to make sure your reader recognizes it. One way to help her see
it is to slow her down.
The marks take time to process, and you should use this principle
to your advantage. Speed the reader through informative writing by
structuring your thoughts so that they require a minimum of punctua-
tion. In persuasive writing, structure your thoughts so that they require
more time to digest.
10. Don’t count too much on context to make your
meaning plain.
By some estimates, DHS is five years behind in this critical effort.
Without its context, that sentence doesn’t convey anything in particu-
lar. You might guess that the writer intends DHS to refer to the Depart-
ment of Homeland Security (and you’d be right), but you can’t be
certain. And you cannot guess what this critical effort refers to. There’s
simply not enough information. You’d need the context of the sentence
to be sure what DHS stands for and to understand that this critical effort
refers to ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply. Placed within
that context, the sentence is a model of simplicity; stripped of context,
it conveys nothing.
Context (here, simply what the reader already knows about the sit-
uation) yanks and tugs and pushes meaning in various directions. It
can play a critical role in helping the reader understand your intent.
Let’s acknowledge that and be done with it. When we are talking about
punctuation, we must look at sentences in isolation, as discrete struc-
tures of logic, because punctuation applies only to the individual sen-
What You Need to Know First: 19 Principles
The explosion was captured on tape by Harrison Crockbottom, a trapeze
artist and a part-time clown.
Lacking context for that sentence, the reader is obligated—simply
because of how the English language structures meaning—to under-
stand that Crockbottom is a trapeze artist and a part-time clown.
Meaning is encoded precisely as it is in the examples below, where
there can be no doubt that Panza, Sudstrom, and Moran are being de-
The article was written by Jack Panza, a professional football player and an
avid stamp collector.
Investigators are now focusing on Ann Sudstrom, a retired physics
professor and a grandmother of eight.
They have hired Auguste Moran, an expert cryptologist and a fluent Arabic
But I would like to take a minute to explore the limits of what con-
text can accomplish. Suppose you live in a small town and are writing
a story for the newspaper of that town. Suppose that the mayor of the
town is named Harrison Crockbottom and that all of your readers know
it. Suppose that a circus is visiting the town on the Sunday evening
when the munitions factory (the town’s major employer) explodes.
Here’s the sentence again.
The explosion was captured on tape by Harrison Crockbottom, a trapeze
artist and a part-time clown.
The structure of language has not changed. But referents have. By
“referent” I mean simply what something refers to. Readers familiar with
the context outlined above would understand that Crockbottom is not
being described as a sometimes-funny acrobat. Given that background
knowledge, and a little common sense, your intended readers are
going to understand that sentence to mean what you want it to mean:
that the explosion was videotaped by three people.
Punctuation at Work

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