Punctuation marks are like traffic signs to guide your readers. Use too many and they could become confused. You’ll raise your risk of making mistakes, especially with those nuclear warhead apostrophes. What’s more, too much punctuation can make your page look cluttered.
Besides, minimalist punctuation is much easier to use than applying all those boring rules. All you have to remember is: If the punctuation helps readers understand, use it; if not, leave it out. Simple.
Commas are too common
Lynne Truss explained how to use commas well in her best seller Eats Shoots & Leaves .
Her title demonstrates the vital role of the comma. If you write The panda eats shoots and leaves, your reader can easily understand that you are referring to the animal’s food. If you add the comma and write The panda eats, shoots and leaves, the reader is left wondering what the panda shot before he left.
Commas are also helpful when you have a set of words that belongs together and the sentence is easier to understand if you surround them with commas. For example: On hot summer days, when I have no pressing deadlines, I take my dog for long walks by the lake.
Without the commas, you could have understood this relatively simple sentence. But the commas made it easier. With a longer or more complex sentence, the comma probably would have been required, not optional.
The trouble comes when people slip in unhelpful commas. Many times I have caught people who claim to follow the style guide of Canadian Press or other authority that rejects serial commas (apples, peaches and pears not apples, peaches, and pears) doing this.
The word and is doing the job of a comma. The commas is unnecessary.
So think twice before you add commas. Remove unnecessary ones when you’re revising your work.
Quotation marks are only for quotes
In my senior year of high school, I had a hippie English teacher who would dramatically arch her long index and middle fingers to make quotation marks whenever she used a term that was even slightly unusual. If she really wanted to stress how offbeat her words were she would say “quote” before she began the phrase, then finish with “end quote,” fingers twitching to make sure we got it –or in her parlance “got” it.
Although an otherwise delightful teacher, the air quotes habit was unhelpful and patronizing. We laughed behind her tie-dye shirted back.
Of course, you need to use quotation marks when directly quoting somebody. But you should use them to distinguish an usual spin on words only when you are certain your readers won’t understand and have rummaged through your brain in search or better words or techniques. How often does that happen? Close to never.
If you want some hilarious examples, check out this blog.
My my first inclination would be to advise people to avoid semi-colons altogether. They are so often misused, overused and abused.
But then I remembered that semi-colons are helpful sometimes. For example, to replace the word “and” linking two related thoughts, i.e. MySpace is dead; Facebook rules.
Sometimes semi-colons work as super commas, separating words in a list that already has commas, i.e. The team is made up of Granny Moses, chief executive officer; Jed Clampett, chief operating officer; Jethro Bodine, chief financial officer; and so on.
I get the most agitated when people use semi-colons to string together too many thoughts. Stop. Start a new sentence instead. The shorter the sentence, the easier it is to understand.
Minimalist punctuaters make minimal use of semi-colons and other fancy marks.
Exclamation points are like swear words
Even more distressing are strings of exclamation points or single punctuation pogo sticks leaping out of every paragraph. Nothing will make your content look more amateur and sloppy. Think of a more creative way to express your excitement. The less often you use them, the more meaningful they will be.
Exclamation points are like swearing, best avoided or reserved for very special occasions when you need to deliver a strong, dramatic message.
Look out for apostrophes
Apostrophes are the most dangerous punctuation mark.
It’s bad enough that so many people get mixed up with possessives and contractions, as in “its” and “it’s.” More on that here. Cease and desist. Please.
But even grammatically minded people put the apostrophe at further risk by condoning its use with plurals in some cases. That includes the much-loved Grammar Girl .
Mignon Fogarty interprets what’s already in the rule books. But it’s time we take a stand against rules that add more confusion than clarity to language.
Take the example of the expression Mind your Ps and Qs. Alternatively, I could have written P’s and Q’s. But why add the silly frills when you understood the minimalist punctuation way?
With large and small numbers, followers of CP and most other style guides write out the numbers instead of using numerals, so apostrphes aren’t an issue. For example, you would write thousands of people instead of 1,000s of people. But even if you wrote 1,000s, the apostrophe would not be needed to get your meaning.
Similarly, hits of the 1980s does not require a comma for people to understand.
I’m not going to insist that you never, ever use an apostrophe in a plural. But I am going to hiss the next time I see one when there was a perfectly understandable alternative.
The more apostrophes on plurals we allow to creep in, the more often we will be unsettled by flyers that proclaim “banana’s on sale.”
Apostrophes are the nuclear energy of punctuation. They can be used for the peaceful, practical purposes of indicating possessives and contractions. Even then they are tricky and must be handled with extreme care.
Unleashed as possible ways to indicate plurals, they can be a force of evil. By allowing them, we are opening the door to abuse and proliferation.
Let’s persuade the English writers of the world, which includes anyone who has written an email this year, to learn how to use them correctly with contractions and possessives before we mention that they might sometimes be allowed with plurals.
Let me say it again: Use only punctuation that helps your reader understand.
That’s all you need to remember. That’s minimalist punctuation.