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Punctuation is one of the most misunderstood aspects of written English. Out of fear of getting it wrong, some people employ avoidance tactics and barely use punctuation at all. Others use punctuation willy-nilly in the hope of at least getting some of it right.

Used properly, punctuation increases readability. When used incorrectly, words can convey a completely different message from what you intended. Consider the following two sentences:

The sales representative said the manager achieved outstanding results.

The sales representative, said the manager, achieved outstanding results.

In the first sentence, the manager achieved outstanding results; in the second, the manager is reporting on the sales representative’s performance.

Punctuation gives meaning to written words by showing the reader where a piece of information begins and ends. This pause gives the reader a chance to take a breath. In business writing, the comma and full stop are the most common punctuation signs you will use. A comma denotes the shortest pause (an orange traffic light) and the full stop the longest (a stop sign).

If you’re not sure where to place the comma or full stop, and the thought of reading a grammar book makes you want to curl up and die, try reading your work out aloud. It’s a quick and easy way to identify the shorter and longer pauses:

The new marketing manager, who has 10 years corporate experience, is starting work tomorrow.

For the presentation, we will need a data projector, laptop and whiteboard.

A common error is using a comma to join two separate ideas. This is not only grammatically incorrect, it also reduces readability. For example:

Incorrect: This software comes as a compressed file, you do not need special software to uncompress the file.

To correct this sentence you could use a joining word (conjunction) such as ‘but’ or a full stop.

Correct: This software comes as a compressed file. You do not need special software to uncompress the file.

Correct: This software comes as a compressed file but you do not need special software to uncompress the file.

While insufficient or incorrect punctuation can cause confusion and misunderstanding, over-punctuating can also become irritating to the reader. For example, including many question or exclamation marks to emphasise a point in a business communication is over the top.

Over the top: Would you like to know more about this community program??? Contact us today!!!

Acceptable: Would you like to know more about our community program? Contact us today!

Although they may seem insignificant, punctuation marks play a powerful role in communication. Getting the punctuation right will not only make your writing more readable, your communication will come across as polished and professional.

For help writing clear, concise communications or for business writing training, contact Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638.