How to be “punctual” in your business communications

The correct use of punctuation may not seem to be all that important in your day-to-day communications, but let me ask you something: when do you ever notice punctuation in business correspondence? If you’re like me, it’s when there’s something wrong! Here are some quick tips for using punctuation correctly to create communications that send the right message:

  • ‘s and s’. These are to show possession. For a single person/place/thing, you add an apostrophe (‘) and then an S [example: Karen’s dish, the tree’s leaves, or Kentucky’s mountains]. For multiple owners of an object, the apostrophe comes after the S [birds’ nesting area, bike enthusiasts’ favorite store]. PLEASE NOTE: the apostrophe should NEVER be used to indicate more than one of an object (the plural). I see this all the time. For example: Restroom’s are down the hall. Whose restrooms? Augh! Just don’t do that! Don’t!
  • Quotations. To indicate that someone is speaking, to note a person’s direct words, or to indicate sarcasm. Place quotation marks (“,”) on either side of a statement. For a partial quote within a sentence, punctuation should go OUTSIDE the quotation marks [Karen said, “this tastes like chicken”.] For a quote that is fully contained within a sentence, the punctuation lies within the quotation marks [“Take two of these and call me in the morning.”] Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit where the actors would make little quote marks in the air every time they didn’t really mean what they said? That’s another use of quotation marks: to denote sarcasm. Say it’s a lovely day outside, yet I tell someone it’s just “horrible”. That’s sarcasm. It’s not horrible. It’s lovely. The quotes give the word the opposite meaning. OK, why am I hounding on this so much? Because when people mistakenly use quotation marks for emphasis, they end up making it look like sarcasm! Here’s an example of a sign in my local shopping center for a store: Oselle’s “Bicycles”. Do you see the problem here? Are they bikes or not? Is the store really a front for a drug operation? If I get in there, am I going to find eggs instead? Or, am I to believe that Mr. Oselle wanted us to hear and imagine him saying the word bicycles? One last thing: make sure you select smart quotations in your Word or design program. These have a curly shape to them to indicate they are quote marks. Old typewriter “double prime” marks are used today only to show an abbreviation for inches (note that WordPress.com doesn’t support smart quotations, so pardon my misuse of them in this column!).
  • Dashes. Here’s a designer’s insider trick: within your computer keyboard are hidden versions of the hyphen that have completely different uses. In office typing (ie. typewriters—who uses those any more?), two hyphens–like these–were used to make a dash. These days, we have a long dash—called an em dash—to use instead. You can find it on a Mac by pressing Option+Shift+hyphen. Another dash, called an en, is half the length of an em but longer than a hyphen. Use this guy (Option+hyphen) to show ranges, like between two dates, times, etc. I can’t show it here, because WordPress doesn’t support this character. But it works great in Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, or any design program. So what’s a plain old hyphen for? Use it to tie two words together, like punctuation-obsessed graphic designer.
  • Double spaces. No longer necessary! In old office typing, two spaces were used after periods and colons. Today’s screen-based fonts include adequate spacing after periods, so this old-fashioned convention is no longer needed. Save your thumb and skip the extra space!

As technological advances provide us with faster, briefer communication on smaller and smaller screens, appropriate punctuation is all but kicked to the curb. And that’s OK! Why waste the effort hunting for the quote marks when you’re texting a friend? Just make sure you know how to make your business communications look professional, using appropriate punctuation and typesetting so your audience notices your message and not your punctuation.

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