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regular-article-logo Sunday, 19 May 2024

Drop the dots: Editorial on the punctuation battle

Too many dots and misplaced capital letters have spilled into official emails from the casualness of social media communications

The Editorial Board Published 01.01.23, 04:32 AM
The most hard-fought territory is that of the comma. It is not a simple matter of the ‘breath’ comma and the grammatical comma: had that been the case, the battle would have been uncomplicated.

The most hard-fought territory is that of the comma. It is not a simple matter of the ‘breath’ comma and the grammatical comma: had that been the case, the battle would have been uncomplicated. Representational picture

There is a different kind of battlefield out there, with verbal vitriol as weaponry and punctuation marks as the rather shaky armies. The rules of battle give the enemy no quarter — while one side stridently asserts the innocence of a parenthetical comment at the end of a sentence, the other shoots down that agonising breach of correctness with a stinging barrage of sarcastic missiles. There are never any winners though. The most hard-fought territory is that of the comma. It is not a simple matter of the ‘breath’ comma and the grammatical comma: had that been the case, the battle would have been uncomplicated. The comma has far more than two sides warring over it. The number of contenders is hard to pin down through the dust thrown up, for each has a different thesis — many have a combination of one, or two, or two-anda-half theses as well. But the comma is only one of many little black marks traipsing across the page, asking, pausing, half-pausing, explaining, giving up. Hence there is no end to the battle.

The latest to wade into this battle-scarred landscape is the director of Italy’s Uffizi Gallery, whose tightly reined exasperation seeps through his instructions to his staff regarding clear and homogenous writing in emails. Punctuation in emails is an even more contentious arena. Although, as the gallery director points out, emails are official communication — like formal letters of simpler times — their affinity, perhaps confusingly, is with social media since their life is digital and they can be delivered instantly. The director objected strongly to the poor punctuation in the offending emails in which, as examples, he underlined the excessive use of not commas — stodgy stuff — but of exclamation marks, ellipses — not three dots but a trail of them — and capital letters. He said the emails were scruffy and unclear, a complaint that could be echoed by numerous bosses throughout the world looking for lucid, precise and efficient communications from their staff. Exclamations equalling anything from a raised eyebrow to a shrug, or a trail of dots invoking a roll of the eyes do not help clarity or efficiency. Scripts that do not have capital letters escape at least some forms of email expressionism: the enraged rebuke or the hysterical complaint. Punctuation etiquette in emails also forbids using bold lettering and that fatal Cleopatra of the social media addict, the emoji.

What the Uffizi Gallery director and his army of supporters are fighting is the casualness that social media communications encourage. Visualisation is so much easier on the brain than the right word and the grammatical sentence; after all, someone did say, when people actually read books and wrote on paper, that brevity is the soul of wit. But wit also needs the right word at the right time; neither exclamation marks nor dots will do. Brevity with verbal clarity is perhaps what the official email needs.

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