English as she is writ

Conventional punctuation - why bother?

Let’s get one thing straight: there is no such thing as correct punctuation (any more than there is such a thing as correct spelling, or correct grammar).

However, there are punctuation conventions that are useful to know if you intend to write text that will be readily understood.

Unconventional punctuation is acceptable when writing informally, particularly to friends. If you’re messaging a chum you can use dashes instead of commas, semicolons, even full stops – be my guest. Use inappropriate and unnecessary capitalisation – I DON’T CARE. End sentences with as many futile exclamation marks as you like – it’s your choice!!!

There are, however, several good reasons for knowing and using the rules of conventional punctuation.

  • To be comprehensible. Your writing will be more readily understood, and by the widest possible group of potential readers.
  • To be impressive. People who read your writing will be impressed by your knowledge of punctuation (and even if they don’t know the conventions themselves, they will be unconsciously aware that your writing is easier to read and better constructed than that of other writers).
  • To be confident. You will feel more confidence in your ability to express yourself, and you will be able to express more complex ideas in writing.
  • To be creative. Once you’re familiar with the conventions, you can break them with confidence, originality, and to good effect.
  • To be precise. Certain texts (for instance legal documents, business letters, instruction manuals, important notes for work colleagues, school and college course work and examinations) have to be punctuated according to the conventional rules in order to avoid misunderstanding, errors, and losing marks.

And there is one more reason to punctuate conventionally – and to use conventional spelling and grammar – and that is to be polite. It is a politeness to your intended reader to write in a way that will not cause him or her puzzlement or discombobulation. You do not want your reader to have to cope with ambiguity or vagueness; you usually do not want your reader to be brought up short by something odd. Unless you are setting out to create an unusual effect, extend to your reader the courtesy of conventional writing.

In the remaining instalments of this blog I’ll explain, for each of the punctuation marks in common use in English, its purpose and conventional usage. I’ll start with the most basic mark of all: the full stop. 

It remains to be seen how far I progress before I deviate from the path in order to sermonise about some other aspect of the English language. Be assured, however, that although such diversion are inevitable I will always return to the punctuation marks.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.