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Punctuation changes the meaning of a sentence

Punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically so why are we so lazy about using it?

When I asked an acquaintance the other day how she knew if the punctuation in an article or report she had written was correct she replied, “If it feels right then it must be right.”

More often than not it probably is right. But not always.

This led me to ask myself why it should be necessary to punctuate properly. After all, many highly successful people have never learnt the difference between a colon and a semicolon and it hasn’t impacted adversely on their careers.
However, punctuation is only one aspect of written or typed language. How about the others, such as spelling? Is spelling important? Would you write proceed when you meant to write precede, or principal when you meant to write principle? Hopefully not.

Yet when you punctuate your writing you probably make mistakes that could lead to equally confusing consequences. Or maybe you use punctuation as a form of self-expression and write whatever takes your fancy.

Poor punctuation can make life extremely difficult for your reader, especially if he or she has to make allowances for your individual style of punctuation. Remember that punctuation is there to assist readers in their understanding of what you have written, not to make their lives more difficult. If they have a right (or is it write, wright or rite?) to expect standard English spellings and grammatical forms, the same should apply to punctuation.

Consider this well-used example:

“Let’s eat grandma.”
“Let’s eat, grandma.”

When speaking we use several ways in which to make our meaning clear, such as stress, intonation or pauses, or rolling our eyes to convey a meaning different from that of the spoken words. And we can usually see if the person we are speaking to understands what has been said. This is not true of the written word.

What is punctuation?

The following punctuation conventions are used:

• A pause in the flow of thought, for example, to allow additional information, is indicated by a comma (,)
• A complete sentence (one thought or idea) is indicated by a full stop (.)
• A semi-colon (;) is used to indicate a fuller pause than a comma, but not the final end of the sentence
• A colon (:) is used to indicate the beginning of a list
The apostrophe is the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language and needs some clarification
Square brackets ([ ]) are used to set off an interruption or insertion within a direct quotation
The question mark is quite straightforward and should provide no problems
Italics are a style of font slanting to the right.

Written language has developed a universal and easily understandable system of punctuation, with each punctuation mark having a particular function. When writing use punctuation properly and your readers will thank you for it.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

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