September 29, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Appearances count: how to fix commonly misused, overused, and underused punctuation

Appearances count: how to fix commonly misused, overused, and underused punctuation

In a world of ever-evolving social media, character limits, and texting, who has time for proper punctuation anymore, right? Contrary to what The New York Times says, this isn’t quite true.

The NY Times recently published an article titled “Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style.” Writer Dan Bilefsky argues that the explosion of social media and digital messaging has caused a sharp decline of period usage and necessity. Bilefsky demonstrates the supposed uselessness by including only one period in his article–and that one period is used to poke fun at them.

Bilefsky’s audience, however, seems largely unconvinced of his argument. The majority of those who commented on the article remark that text message and social media punctuation patterns do not speak for larger written trends. The commenters appear to widely agree that periods remain necessary in longer form writing.

Even though the period likely isn’t actually disappearing, writers’ focus on proper punctuation may be. It can be easy to let relaxed social media and messaging patterns sneak into your PR and professional writing, but punctuation remains vital to produce clean, well-structured writing. In addition to the period, consider these three commonly underused, overused, and misused types of punctuation and the ways they can impact your writing:

1. The misused: Commas

Commas are used in a variety of capacities, such as to separate lists, connect sentences linked by conjunctions, and divide clauses. Commas seem small and insignificant, but these tiny pieces of punctuation can alter the entire meaning of the sentence. Consider, for example, the two sentences below. They are identical, except for comma usage.

I’m sorry I love you.

I’m sorry, I love you.

Without the comma in the first sentence, it would appear the speaker is apologizing for loving someone. The use, or lack, of commas vastly changes the meaning of a sentence, so proper comma use is vital to produce clear writing. Reading your work aloud can help determine sentences that require commas. Editing your work out loud can identify a sentence’s natural pauses, which often indicates where a comma is necessary.

2. The underused: Semicolons

Think about it, how often do you include a semicolon in your own writing? Personally, I know I’m apt to forget about them. Writers likely underuse this piece of punctuation because commas are often mistakenly used instead of semicolons. Semicolons have an assortment of uses, but their most common use involves separating two independent clauses that have similar topics. Example:

I have a dog; his fur is brown.

Reading your work aloud can also help identify sentences that require semicolons. You’ll be able to hear if two phrases have the required makings of a completed clause. If both phrases contain the necessary elements and have connected topics, toss a semicolon in between. Semicolons help avoid run-on sentences and comma splices in your writing.

3. The overused: Quotation Marks

When I worked as a writing tutor, I saw more quotation marks than any other piece of punctuation. Writers love to throw them around phrases or words to give them emphasis. This feels like the writing equivalent of using air quotes. As a tutor, I often saw sentences punctuated with quotes like this:

Sally’s “so-called” friend gossiped about her all the time.

This sentence attempts to use quotes to emphasize the word so-called. Quotation marks are really only necessary, however, in a few situations. Namely, they are used to enclose a direct quote or piece of dialogue and are placed around the title of a shorter work, such as a short story or song. Examples:

“Don’t Stop Believing”

“It’s such a beautiful day,” he said. “I’m so glad it stopped raining.”

Reviewing your work to amend underused, overused, and misused bits of punctuation can lead to writing that is clear and engaging for your audience.

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About The Author'

Jordan Gosselin recently began her career in marketing and communication with CARMA. Her experience includes social and digital work, creative content production, and marketing operations.

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