Literally Speaking

When you read something, I mean actually look at the letters and punctuation on the page, how do you know what it says? I mean, the letters spell words – that’s relatively straightforward – but beyond that, what determines what the letters and spaces and bits of punctuation actually say?

This may seem a silly question, but you’d be surprised how relevant it can be. If you’re a copywriter, or an editor, or a graphic designer – and definitely if you’re a writer – or even just someone interested in making sure your meaning is understood, then “orthography” (roughly translated, “correct writing”) is a discipline it’s worth getting your head around.

For example, should the abbreviated forms of “mister” and “doctor” in names be Mr. and Dr. or Mr and Dr? (I personally prefer the dot on the end to mark the abbreviation of a word.) Why is it ‘e.g.’ rather than ‘eg’? (There, the dots distinguish a lowercase abbreviation from the sound “eg” pronounced as a word.)

With more ordinary punctuation things can get a little complicated. It can vary according to context and personal style and of course which country you’re writing in (American and British use of dashes, for example).

Last time, we touched on the comma for direct address, which, on a related note, helps us avoid misreading sentences by separating the name of the one being addressed from the rest of the sentence (e.g., ‘Use the Force, Luke.’). Here are a few brief examples of how to use other commonly confused bits of punctuation:

  • The ellipsis (or ‘…’) – used for omissions and that trailing-off-into-the-distance effect – e.g., ‘Who knows what horrors lurk below …’ (note the space between the word ‘below’ and the ‘…’).
  • The hyphen (or ‘-’), often confused with the en-dash (‘–’) or forgotten entirely – used to link closely connected words (e.g., ‘tax-free’, ‘oven-ready’, ‘over-complicated’), and a tricky little bugger at the best of times (which we haven’t got time to go into thoroughly now).
  • The en-dash (‘–’) – used to signify an explanation or interruption, and the like (see what I did there?). Also used (rather than a hyphen) as follows: ‘the 1939–1945 war’, ‘pages 203–219’, ‘the London–Edinburgh train’, ‘U.S.–U.K. relations’.

You don’t need to overthink it, though. How you would say something out loud can often be a useful guide – or at least provide a hint – what to do. Generally, the more natural-sounding way will work better (as long as you have an idea how to signify/punctuate it). Rules are there to help us, after all, not trip us up.

Of course, all this is without going into things like italics for emphasis and the Proper Use of Capitals, and a whole range of more specialised or creative ways of using punctuation and type, as well as other ways of using symbols to convey meaning when we write (which is kind of what orthography and, to a certain extent, typography are all about).

It can seem intimidating when you first start learning – but being aware of the differences and how they affect meaning is a useful first step, and will hopefully help in the meantime.

Of course (blatant-advertising alert), if you have a project it’s really important to get right, a good copywriter – just to pick an example completely at random – could help you with that …

Until next time, write on …

“Word, Dude”

Why does punctuation matter? A lot of people seem to have a problem with the idea of punctuation that they’ve never been taught to use and that ‘looks funny’ to them.

Fair enough. So why do we use it? Because it prevents ambiguity – so we can reliably look at a sentence and say it says one thing rather than another.

Most people, I’ve found, if you tell them to look at how dialogue is punctuated in a story will be a bit surprised when you point out the weird way that there are commas separating names from what’s being said to someone. For example:

  • ‘Use the Force, Luke.’
  • ‘Hi, Max.’
  • ‘Look, honey, we could do that this year.’

This mysterious anachronism is the comma for direct address. Except, it isn’t – an anachronism, I mean. It serves a useful function. It helps stop us misreading a sentence and having to go back and work it out – and really knocking us out of the story, dude …

Except, when it comes to thinking up examples out of the blue, you can never seem to think of one that demonstrates it until much later, when someone’s already walked off thinking you’re just being fussy and it doesn’t make any difference how you punctuate a text message or an email …

On a text … ah, people get what you’re saying … probably. A business email … well, I’ve dealt with some pretty senior people over the years who don’t bother with it.

Actually, while I’m at it, indulge me – go back and look at the end of that last sentence:

‘[…] I’ve dealt with some pretty senior people over the years […]’

What happens if I add a comma and change it to:

‘[…] I’ve dealt with some pretty, senior people […]’

Then it becomes senior people who are pretty, rather than people who are pretty senior.

Why I should go around finding these people – some of whom were the wrong gender, let alone the wrong age ­­­– pretty … well, that’s just embarrassing for everyone concerned.

But it demonstrates the basic principle. Small changes in punctuation, big changes in meaning.

Well, that’s probably enough for now, but hey, even if you knew all this already, hopefully it’s helped refresh your memory, and maybe entertain you a little along the way. Peace out, dude …