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    Red Light . . . Green Light

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Using basic punctuation is like swimming or riding a bike: once you learn how, you never forget. Take periods and question marks, for example. You've internalized their uses so that placing them in your writing becomes automatic, much like kicking your legs when swimming.

    But as you know, not all punctuation marks are created equal. Semicolons, colons, commas, dashes, parentheses - these marks can be confusing. For some (like the semicolon), it is because you rarely use them; for others (like the comma), it's because there are so many uses.

    Of course, when you have questions about punctuation, you can refer to a business-writing handbook such as Write for Business or to an online grammar guide for rules and examples. What you might find equally helpful, however, are explanations such as the entertaining ones Patricia T. O'Conner provides in Woe is I (Riverhead Books, New York). She approaches punctuation as road markers, if you will, that direct traffic so readers don't get lost along a stretch of writing.

    Here are her opening explanations for each mark; read and enjoy. (The examples are mine.)

    • The period is the red light at the end of a sentence.
    • Late afternoon meetings stink.
    • "Don't take commas for granted. They're like yellow traffic lights. If you ignore one, you could be in for a bumpy ride."
    • Oscar, tell me how you stay awake.
    • "If a comma is a yellow light and a period is a red light, the semicolon is a flashing red - one of these lights you drive through after a brief pause."
    • By 4:15, I almost always feel the weary dismals coming on; a cup of forty weight is the only remedy.
    • "But remember that a colon is an abrupt stop, almost like a period. Use one only if you want your sentences to brake completely."
    • For productive meetings, follow these guidelines: schedule them for the morning, put a time limit on discussions, and offer frequent flyer miles for participation.
    • "The question mark is the raised eyebrow at the end of a sentence."
    • Who will head the doughnut committee?
    • "The exclamation mark is like the horn on your car - use it only when you have to."
    • Yes! Another pie chart!
    • For parentheses: "Once in awhile you may need an aside, a gentle interruption to tuck information into a sentence or between sentences."
    • He sat next to me and proceeded to describe (in graphic detail) his bout with the flu.
    • "We could do with fewer dashes. In fact, the dash is probably even more overused these days than the exclamation point - and I admit to being an offender myself."
    • She stated the words I hate to hear - next quarter's quotas.

    O'Conner's engaging text also covers all aspects of grammar, from forming possessives to subject-verb agreement, from using pronouns to understanding commonly mixed pairs of words. It deserves a space on your desk, next to a dictionary and writing handbook.

    Here are three other punctuation and grammar guides to consider, all written with a pleasing mix of irreverence, panache, and insight:

    1. The New Well-Tempered Sentence (Ticknor & Fields) by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
    2. Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Gotham Books) by Lynne Truss
    3. Lapsing into a Comma (Contemporary Books) by Bill Walsh

    Final Thoughts: Columnist Russell Baker offers another helpful explanation of punctuation. He says it "plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard."

    No matter what metaphor works for you, just remember that punctuation is there to serve rather than befuddle you.

    - Dave Kemper