Punctuation: To comma or not to comma


By Rachel Peck

I have a confession. I’m a marketing and public relations professional with a degree in communications and a minor in English, and yet I’m known to misuse the apostrophe. Often when I get into a flow state with writing, I’ll begin the editing process and realize I’ve written several “it’s” when it should’ve been “its.” Whether you’re starting out your career, or a 20-year veteran, I’m willing to bet you have at least one punctuation flaw that often trips you up. In honor of National Punctuation Day, here are some facts and tips about a few of the punctuation marks used today: 

Was that a question?
While you might think all you need to correctly convey your message are the right words, you would be mistaken. Punctuation, when used incorrectly or correctly, can totally alter your message and its meaning and no punctuation mark is more guilty than the question. For example, a question mark can take a sentence which should be a statement, and turn it into a passive question – from a direct message to a “maybe.” 

Fun fact: The first known use of punctuation was in 1593, and before the question mark existed, they used to end queries with the word “questio”  in Latin.

Exclamation points are overused!
Perhaps the most overused of all punctuation, in my opinion, is the exclamation. When used sparingly, it can convey outrage, excitement, astonishment or fear. When overused, it can seem inauthentic and overly enthusiastic. As a rule of thumb, I try to never use more than one exclamation point in a paragraph. If writing a blog, I like to give myself no more than two. For social media captions, I try to never include them. I hope you agree! (See what I did there?) 

Fun fact: Typewriter keys didn’t have a dedicated key for the exclamation point until the 1970s. Until then, you would’ve had to type a period, then backspace over it with an apostrophe. This was referred to as a “bang.” 

My favorite things include eating family and friends 
This wouldn’t be a thorough blog on punctuation without featuring the all important comma – which in some cases is a life and death situation. The comma is the most used punctuation mark, after the period, and was created in the late 1400s by an Italian printer. The first comma was actually a slash mark, also called a virgule, which denotes a pause in speech. In the 1500s it was renamed “comma,” which means “a piece cut off” and is derived from the Greek word, koptein, meaning “to cut off.”

Fun fact: The Oxford comma is perhaps the most hotly debated punctuation mark and its use has been discussed from editors offices all the way to courtrooms. In our home state of Maine, a missing Oxford comma cost a local dairy 10 million in overtime, proving there’s a time and a place for this all important punctuation mark.

Without punctuation, we’re left with just words. Their meaning would be lost without the voice and inflection punctuation can impart. For communications professionals, we should take care of what punctuation we use and where. We want to make sure our language is as concise as possible, given attention spans and leaves little room for interpretation.

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