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I was wrong (about punctuation)

If you’ve taken part in a copywriting or business writing workshop I’ve run over the last 10 years or so, or read Write to Sell, you might have been (un)lucky enough to catch one of my rants about punctuation and its main function.

But I now believe that what I told you was wrong. And that there’s a new right answer.

Here’s a question for you:

Why should you use punctuation correctly?

Is it…

a) So your reader knows when to pause for breath.
b) So your reader can understand your copy.
c) Reason X

If you answered a), that would be not since the 19th Century.

If you answered b), I’d say that appears to be right, and it certainly does help, but see below.

If you answered c) you know me well enough to figure out I have something up my sleeve.

Back to answer b). We were all taught at school (or we should have been) that punctuation is there to make our meaning clear.

In my first book, I devoted a whole chapter to this idea with copious examples. But it’s just not true. Here’s what I mean.

Bad punctuation is not a barrier to comprehension

its perfectly possible, to write a couple of sentence’s where; the punctuation is at best random and – at – worst malevolently misused yet. With virtually no… effort reader’s of even modest educational attainment, can decipher it’s meaning? Correct punctuation, would clarify it’s meaning but, the meaning isnt obscured without it!

And yes I know all about we’re vs were, cant vs can’t and the rest. But be honest, if you received an email from a colleague that said…

Sorry not be coming to your softball match but I just cant.

…you wouldn’t assume they were unable to play because they were using insincerely pious language. Or would you? No, you wouldn’t.

So why should you punctuate correctly?

I read a brilliant article in the New Yorker recently about Pixar. Here’s a quote from John Lasseter, chief creative officer, Pixar and Disney Animation Studios (now there’s a job title):

“When you do your job right, and get something perfect, the audience won’t notice it. But if it’s not right they will notice it, popping out of the movie”.

Get your punctuation perfect and you disappear. All that’s left is the story you’re telling.

Get it wrong and your reader shifts their focus from the story back to the storyteller, who looks inept and stumbling. Not someone you’d buy from, in other words.

And I’m telling you this because

Not everyone is great at punctuation. But then not everyone is good at digitally animating fur either. If you’re going to write copy for a living, even part of the time, you should do it properly.

That way, your reader remains involved inwhat you’re saying rather than the way you’re saying it. And you don’t look like an idiot. Or worse.

Oh, and it does still make reading a lot easier, which is good when you’re writing advertising or marketing copy.

PS Please email the punctuation errors in this article to the usual address!

Categories: Maslen on Marketing and Style.

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