Up Your Business Writing with Strong Punctuation

Many of us assume we don’t need to punctuate too carefully; however, careful punctuation can really move your business communication to the next level and distinguish you from those less familiar with the rules. Strong punctuation also helps break up your ideas into digestible chunks and avoids confusing, or losing, your reader. Help move your writing from very good to great by following these simple steps.

Reconsider the Debated Serial Comma

Many dispute the use of the Serial comma, otherwise known as the Oxford comma, Series comma, or even the Harvard comma. Advocates of the Serial comma ask us to insert the punctuation just before the coordinating conjunction (typically ‘and’ or ‘or’) in a series of three or more. A quick refresher follows:

Within a list of three grocery items – like “carrots, almonds, and milk” — the Serial comma goes after the last item.

Critics of the Serial comma contend the device looks stuffy and academic. But one high profile legal case recently highlighted in the New York Times showed the virtue of using this punctuation device. Due to a missing Serial comma in an important contract, employees at a shipping company stand to sue their employer millions in an overtime dispute. This blog on Grammar Girl provides more depth on Serial commas.

Try Out the Semicolon

Often, the rules behind this small punctuation evade many writers during deadline crunch. However, semicolons do a nice job of breaking up long ideas and sentences. (To me, the semicolon looks pretty, too.) These three short rules should help:

  • Use a semicolon to relate two closely related independent clauses — meaning, a complete sentence. Apply this rule when connecting ideas without any linking words, or with conjunctive adverbs such as moreover, therefore or otherwise. For example, “North Carolina experienced record rain over Easter break; however, strawberry harvest remains bountiful,” NC State officials say.
  • Use semicolons to separate a long series of list items. For example, he is survived by a son, John Smith, of Chicago; three daughters, Jane Smith, of Kansas, Mary Smith, of Denver, and Susan, of Boston; and a sister of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • Place semicolons outside quotation marks.

Employ The Parentheses

Quoting the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University, parentheses help set off important ideas not central to your topic, as an aside, or to complete a clarifying idea. But where to punctuate these guys? Three small rules follow:

  • The sentence should remain valid (and correct) even if you removed the parentheses.
  • When a fragment in parentheses ends a sentence, put the period, question mark or exclamation mark outside the last parentheses. For example, could that product disappear (really)?
  • If the inserted idea is a complete sentence, the punctuation remains inside. For instance, that venture has a great chance of winning a larger market share. (It really does!)

Carefully Use Quotation Marks

Whether to place commas or periods inside or outside quotation marks depends on whether you live in the UK or the states. Rule of thumb in this country: commas and periods always go within quotation marks.

Punctuate Any Emphasis Techniques

If the emphasis becomes part of the person’s quote, then that punctuation remains within the quotation marks. If you quote someone  who says, “I won’t ever buy that junky brand. Are you kidding me?” the question mark remains within. Note too: a question mark and exclamation mark replaces a period at the end of a sentence.

One more tip and I’ll let you go: Keep a cheat sheet. (I have one.) So many style and punctuation rules exist, and it’s admittedly impossible to remember them all. So, to remind yourself of the conventions that frequently evade you, keep a cheat sheet with the rules consistent to the organization/group/client you write for. On deadline, quickly consult that document before you publish. Happy writing!


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