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The Point of Punctuation

Behold, the mighty interrobang!

Behold, the mighty interrobang!

One of my best friends is a Physician’s Assistant and, as it happens, my main caregiver. Last winter sometime she opened up a chat session with me over GMail and asked how I was doing. I said, “I’m sick. Something nasty.”

She said, “Oh yeah? Us too!” She and her husband had been ailing with something for a couple days, and she’d just figured out what it was.

She told me all about it, dwelling on the symptoms for some time which were fairly harmless but pretty dramatic in their presentation. After hearing all about it, I shuddered and said, “Yeah, I definitely don’t have that.”

Problem was, she missed the “don’t,” and with good reason. I’ve got a touch of hypochondria, after all, so it was reasonable enough for her to think I’d instantly self-diagnosed. She laughed at me. She passed the joke on to her husband, even, before I had a chance to correct her misunderstanding. Then that story became the joke, where my reputation for pessimism was so powerful it overwhelmed the words I’d spoken.

My own caregiver was ready to laugh at my concern! That’s a problem, and it was one of my own making. A healthy dose of caution is a good thing, but if you overdo it too often, it becomes counterproductive.  Like so many things in life, the key is discretion, moderation.

Exclamation Marks

It’s the same way in writing, of course. I’ve talked about finding balance in descriptive detail before, just as an example, but there’s certainly many more ways it’s true: balancing exposition against narrative, technical accuracy against brevity, clear prose against a finished draft. Those are pretty big-picture concerns, but it gets down to the fine details, too. Word length, sentence composition, punctuation marks….

There’s a novel by Terry Pratchett, Masquerade, which is a humorous retelling of The Phantom of the Opera. Late in the story, the theater owners receive a message from the phantom saying….

Ahahahahaha! Ahahahaha! Aahahaha!


Yrs sincerely,

The Opera Ghost

The inspector considers the note, and says solemnly:

What sort of person sits down and writes a maniacal laugh? And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head.

There’s a good lesson there. Don’t ever stack exclamation marks, unless you’re doing it as a joke. Multiple marks don’t really increase the effect of the first one — they do the opposite, in fact. Even if they’re not stacked, even if they’re spread through the document, the more times you use exclamation marks, the less seriously your reader is going to take them.

That’s such an important concept that, in technical writing, they teach us to barely use exclamation marks at all. It’s not because our material is dry and boring (believe it or not, some tech writing is about fascinating things). No. We avoid using exclamation marks in body text so that they’ll stand out when we use them in Warnings.

The Warning is an important tool for technical writers. We use Cautions to talk about actions that might cause damage to equipment, maybe some inconvenience to the user or even loss of property, but Warnings are special. Warnings are for things that can cause injury or death.

That’s a big deal. We might use bold formatting and inset margins to make it stand out, sometimes even colored font, but one of the most effective tools to make it matter to readers is the exclamation mark.

Or, more accurately, the rare exclamation mark. Exclamation marks can change the meaning of a sentence, but only if they’re used right. Only if they’re an occasional deviation from the usual, boring ol’ period.

Alchemy Again

That change is the part that matters. That’s the whole point of punctuation — to transform words into meaning. Capitalization, sentence marks, unit indicators, question marks, spaces for goodness’ sake, appositive commas, conjunctive commas, and the glorious, invaluable, hardworking serial comma all work together to turn a block of text into a stream of meaning.

Consider the following characters:


Spaces help. Spaces between words are punctuation (and punctuation you don’t get in several older languages, as I learned about five minutes before I dropped out of Latin). As soon as I break that text up into words, you can read it.

its not magic its science reading is the process that transforms characters into thought but proper punctuation is a catalyst

Or, I should say, you can read it quickly. With context or patience, you could figure out that first block of characters on your own, converting letters into words, but the spaces speed up that transformation.

That’s what punctuation does for you, and you can see it even more in a properly punctuated sentence. Spaces make words, but it’s the marks that make clauses, sentences, paragraphs.

It’s not magic, it’s science. Reading is the process that transforms characters into thought, but proper punctuation is a catalyst.

The point of technical writing is to perform that alchemy — to invest your time, once, to write it well, so that the same material can be read again and again (countless times, by countless readers), and easily understood. Proper punctuation effectively and dramatically helps you achieve that end.

So use it. Learn your tools, and put them to work for you. Learn the rules of apostrophes and commas, learn the standards of capitalization and abbreviation, and learn to get the most out of the words you put on paper. It’ll make sure you’re understood, make sure your hard work is effective, and might even save you getting laughed at.

One Response to “The Point of Punctuation”

  1. Trish Pogue says:

    This article reminds me of a Seinfeld episode. Elaine gets a note from her boyfriend that says a friend of hers had a baby. Well she gets irate because he didn’t use an exclamation point. That was the end of that relationship. Jerry said, “I never heard of a relationship being affected because of punctuation?”

    By the way, I’m horrible with punctuation. I now you can help.