If you want the academic “rules” for punctuation, then google “punctuation”. If you want some practical tips to help you make quick punctuation decisions, read on…
Effective writers punctuate pragmatically! In IWCC’s effective business writing workshops, we teach a style of writing that minimizes the need for punctuation. Is punctuation important? Of course it is! But the punctuation rules we learned in school are not as important as helping our reader get our message…the right message! Here are some practical tips.
Think of a comma as a merge sign on a highway, you want your reader to slow down and take a brief pause. A quick test to see if you need a comma is to read your sentence out loud. If you need to pause so the sentence sounds right/makes sense, add a comma. Try it on the two versions below:
“When working in the control room in an emergency situation you must wait for the light to turn green before turning on the processor.”
“When working in the control room in an emergency situation, you must wait for the light to turn green before turning on the processor.”
Now be honest…when you read these sentences out loud, the first version does not sound right. You naturally want to pause briefly after the word situation – so will your reader.
A semicolon asks your reader to pause just a little longer. Readers respond to a semicolon like they would to a flashing yellow light at an intersection. “Slow down and ponder this situation”, is what a semicolon says to your reader. “Consider this one thought before you continue on to read the next.” By using semicolons you can add variety and depth to your writing. For instance, a semicolon works well when you want to link two sentences that are closely related but could stand alone, like in this example:
“We focused on safety as our primary design goal; we viewed cost as secondary.”
Then we have a colon - the light-hearted period. A colon asks your reader to slow down and come to a temporary stop, like a yellow stop light at an intersection. You probably already use a colon before you list items or bullet points, as in the first example below. But here is a second use for a colon that can add real impact to your writing. Use it to separate an explanation, rule or example from a preceding independent clause as in the second example below.
“You will need three tools: a hammer, a Philips screwdriver and a wrench.”
“Writing is not just something you do to paper: it is a way to communicate with people.”
When you read these sentences out loud you stop, take a breath and then read on until the period says STOP you are at the end of the sentence.
You choose where you want to put your focus. Academics will insist you punctuate perfectly. IWCC recommends that you punctuate correctly…but pragmatically. Punctuate perfectly - you focus on rules. Punctuate pragmatically - you focus on your reader.