The Write Stuff
November 2011 Volume 7 Issue 11
Give Thanks for Punctuation
Next week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, many of you will be focusing on food, family and even football, but the holiday is supposed to be about giving thanks. Your “gratitude list” probably includes loved ones, health, a roof over your head, and a job/steady income; mine does, too, but I’m also thankful for punctuation.
That might sound odd, but it seems perfectly appropriate to me, since I make my living working with words. Punctuation is as important to writing as a traffic light is to a busy intersection; without it, chaos would ensue.
An e-mail from a local caterer recently reminded me how important it is to correctly use punctuation to ensure your message gets across as intended. It included the following sentence:
Flavors this fall are butternut squash, artichoke, four cheese and spinach, sausage and pumpkin.
How many flavors do you think there are? Are they butternut squash, artichoke, four cheese and spinach, sausage, and pumpkin (five), or butternut squash; artichoke; four cheese; and spinach, sausage, and pumpkin (four)?
I assume the first option is correct, but by failing to use a comma after “sausage,” the writer inadvertently caused confusion…the last thing you want to do when you’re trying to make a point. You also don’t want readers to have to make assumptions that may or may not be accurate.
When a list of items within a sentence includes “and” (as in this example), you must take special care when punctuating to ensure clarity. Most readers’ response to being confused will be to move on rather than take the time to decipher a murky message.
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