In her seminal book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, author Lynne Truss begins with a story. A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
While a misplaced comma is unlikely to put you on a collision course with a rampaging panda, punctuation is one of the most important aspects of written language. It can save your business time and money, while helping to maintain its reputation.
Let’s take a closer look at punctuation.
Avoiding unintended consequences
Punctuation gives meaning and provides clarity to writing. It’s both the glue that holds your sentences together and the spacers needed to give your writing rhythm. Not only that, punctuation errors can convey an entirely different meaning than you intend, resulting in a lot of confusion.
The humble comma, for example, can mean the difference between sitting down to dinner (“let’s eat, Grandma”) and devouring something infinitely more awful (“let’s eat Grandma”). Likewise, a missing apostrophe can change the meaning of a word completely, such as with “we’re” and “were.” Simply put, punctuation makes things clearer.
Big brands in the firing line
Although big brands typically invest millions of dollars in advertising, they can be guilty of poor punctuation, grammar, and spelling (click here for some examples). And in the digital age, more people are likely to see and remember these mistakes.
Bad punctuation (and grammar) makes a company look lazy, unprofessional, and can jeopardize sales. That can mean the recall of a product, lost customers, or even becoming the target of media jokes. In fact, a UK study found that 59 percent of consumers would avoid doing business with a company that’s made obvious errors. We’re willing to bet that punctuation mistakes have a similar effect. Interestingly, in the US, a single missing hyphen from some computer code is said to have cost NASA $80 million in 1962. Incorrect guidance signals — based on the bad code — likely caused the unmanned Mariner 1 rocket to abort its launch.
The so-called “greengrocer’s apostrophe” is perhaps the most common punctuation villain. Named for its frequent appearance at fruit and vegetable markets, it’s the apostrophe that often pops up in error to make words plural. Think “juicy apple’s” “hot pie’s” and “DJ’s all night.” The results of these mistakes might not be as disastrous as NASA’s hyphen gaffe, but they certainly don’t help with positive brand position.
Punctuating means professionalism
According to The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, “The problem with poor punctuation is that it makes life difficult for the reader who needs to read and understand what you’ve written.”
Good punctuation saves time in business. It leaves no doubt as to the intended meaning of what you’ve written, which reduces confusion. It also helps you communicate more effectively with others and cuts the time needed to provide clarification. Good communication skills demonstrate competency and professionalism, whether you’re interacting with customers, peers, stockholders, employees, or other companies.
The good news is that it’s never too late to brush up on your skills. Being a punctuation expert creates a host of benefits, and you can learn to be one at any time. In fact, there’s a plethora of handy guides to help polish your punctuation skills. Taking the time to get your punctuation perfect, so the famous saying goes, “means the difference between knowing your sh*t and knowing you’re sh*t.”