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Another Writing Tip

Punctuation should be invisible. That’s an exaggerated way of saying that readers shouldn’t notice the marks you use. You want punctuation to guide and influence the reader, never to distract. So Richard Lauchman writes in his book Punctuation at Work.

Lauchman writes, “In workplace writing, every aspect of style should be transparent. Nothing should distract the reader; nothing should interfere with his ‘getting it.’ Unfortunately, when a writer botches grammar, misspells a word or two, or mangles punctuation, the reader gets distracted and begins looking at the surface of things. She starts searching for additional errors, and she begins asking questions we do not want her to ask, questions such as ‘Doesn’t the writer know better?’

“You can prevent a reader from asking such a question by being conservative in the way you handle punctuation and every other aspect of style,” Lauchman continues. “By ‘being conservative’ here, I mean two things: (1) not making little, distracting errors and (2) operating within the code your readers expect. Just know the conventions and follow them.

According to Lauchman, writers sometimes ignore the conventions and instead use a private code. “Ultimately, the motives don’t matter. What matters is that unusual usages like the ones below call attention to themselves.”

—Visitors must park in/designated/spaces.

—They have agreed --- at long last --- to review our request for reconsideration.

—The committee . . . to our great surprise . . . has decided to terminate funding.

Lauchman comments, “The first probably indicates a writer’s highly personal attempt to emphasize a word; the last two look like devil-may-care attempts to emphasize a phrase. But you don’t see such constructions in everyday workplace writing, and because you do not see them, you may pause and ponder them.”

Lauchman observes how the consequence is that instead of reading, you ruminate.  He writes, “Ruminating is excellent if you are a cow, but if you are a reader, you should not be compelled to chew and re-chew. Your punctuation should call no attention to itself.”

Excerpted, with permission from the publisher, from Punctuation at Work by Richard Lauchman. Copyright 2010, Richard Lauchman. Published by AMACOM (www.amacombooks.org).