Punctuation at Work

Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style

 Punctuation at Work

Author: Richard Lauchman
Pub Date: February 2010
Print Edition: $13.95
Print ISBN: 9780814414941
Page Count: 208
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814414958

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This book is for those of you who have to write at work and want clear,

commonsense guidance on punctuation. It concerns the usages that

are simple, useful, and appropriate in workplace writing, where the

chief goal of any document is to convey information as efficiently as

possible. Other sorts of writing may seek to enthrall, beguile, amuse,

or contribute to the body of human knowledge. But busy executives

are not hoping to be enraptured or moved to giggles by an audit report.

They want to know, right away, whether they need to take action. And

one reason why corporate policies aren’t written in Shakespearean

verse is that readers of policies are neither seeking nor expecting a literary

experience. They simply want to know, in the clearest language

possible, what their rights and responsibilities are.

Certainly, in the writing we do at work, our readers deserve this

“clearest language possible.” I think it’s healthy to take pride in your

writing, and sensible to care about it, but wise to realize that the main

aim of style in workplace writing is to make things easy for the reader.

I’m going to show you how punctuation can contribute to simplicity of

style. In practical terms, the marks are nothing more than tools for

tightening the nuts and bolts of the airy stuff we call meaning. They’re

as unglamorous and mundane as any collection of wrenches and

screwdrivers—and once we get rid of the stupefying half-truths and

fallacies about them, they’re just as easy to use.

Why So Many Professionals Are Befuddled by


No one is born with a sense of where to put a comma. The kitten

knows how to pounce, but the child lacks instinct for hyphenating his

compound adjectives. We all have to learn how to punctuate, and that

means we’re at the mercy of those who teach us.

After a quarter-century of teaching writing in the workplace, I’m

no longer surprised by the sloppy and confusing punctuation I see in

most business, technical, scientific, and regulatory writing. What still

surprises me is the number of people who insist that they never received

any instruction in the matter. They do not say they never got

any “good” instruction or any “reasonable” instruction; they do not say

they were confused to the point of paralysis by inconsistencies in what

they were taught. What they say is that they were never taught how to

use the marks. And the frequency of this complaint is increasing. In

the United States it is possible these days to proceed through high

school, college, and graduate school with one’s instructors encouraging

the joys of expression and assuming that teaching clarity of expression

is someone else’s responsibility.

This is not to say that punctuation is never taught along the way,

because it usually is—in ways that make a practical man’s hair stand

on end. Often, instructors explain only a few crude and elementary usages,

leaving unexplored the numerous options essential to a good

writer. (I may be expert at wielding a sledgehammer, but if that’s the

only tool I know how to use, what do I do when I have to extract a

splinter?) The guidance writers receive from one year to the next can

be slapdash and whimsical, governed by the individual instructor’s personal

preference, taste, and overall feel for what constitutes good writing.

From one year to the next, this guidance can be conflicting and

even contradictory. As a freshman one may learn that using parentheses

is practically an immoral act; as a sophomore that parentheses are

useful, but that dashes are villainous; and as a junior that dashes are

the cat’s meow, but that semicolons are the footprints of a chucklehead,

or at least evidence of careless thinking.

It should come as no surprise that some instructors, ham-handed

or not, simply do not know the conventions of meaning and form. Others

may be unaware of important distinctions of usage. Such instructors,

often with great force, insist that however must always be

followed by a comma, that which must always be preceded by a

comma, that items in any bulleted list must be followed by semicolons,

and so on. There are plenty of English teachers and composition instructors

who are either mistaken about certain conventions or who

were taught the British conventions. In either case, what they plant in

fertile and impressionable young minds are the seeds of confusion and


And then we have those who learned correct usage decades and

decades ago, when (for example) cooperate required a hyphen, and it

was considered the pinnacle of good taste to introduce abbreviations

with great formality, as in American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation

(hereinafter referred to as “AT&T”). Usage has changed since then.

We have all been annoyed by the weather reporter on the radio who

tells us there is a zero chance of rain while we have the windshield

wipers on maximum. That reporter is reading from a script, not looking

through the window to see what’s really going on. And instructors who

do not bother to read well-written current stuff—to read it with their

eyes open, noticing how the marks are truly used—continue to report

from the 1960s and to insist that archaic conventions remain in force.

To this bubbling stew of misguidance, we add the two absurd

methods of instruction that have victimized writers for decades. The

first of these methods is what I call the “sound-bite” method. An example

is the famous “Put in a comma where you’d take a breath.” The

second is one we might call the “I-can’t-explain-it-simply-so-I’m-going-

to-use-jargon” method. An example of this one is the terrifying

and ultimately meaningless rule “A non-restrictive appositive used as

a summative modifier is set off with a comma.” Ninety-nine percent of

the people I work with day in and day out do not remember the jargon

of grammar, if indeed they were ever exposed to it. Is it any mystery

why people need help with punctuation?

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