Punctuation is as important as signage on the highway.  Like road signs, punctuation marks tell you how fast to go, when to slow down and how quickly to stop.

But just like road signs, punctuation marks can be confusing if used too often or incorrectly.

I see a lot of overpunctuation on a fairly regular basis.  the most common ones are too many periods or ellipses, too many question marks or exclamation points and too many commas.

PERIODS AND ELLIPSES.  God bless the period.  The most basic of all punctuation, the period tells us when to pause between sentences.  Unfortunately, someone invented the ellipsis, a punctuation mark which looks like three periods in a row (…).  The ellipsis (the plural form is ‘ellipses’) is used to indicate a long pause, an omission in printing or a sentence that trails off.

I can fully defend using the ellipsis for omissions in printed text, as in a newspaper account of a fire:  “She watched the … building burn.”  This would be especially useful if you’ve already identified the building as “The International Trade Union Credit Union Building” and a repeat of the name would just bog down the story and confuse the reader.

Using the ellipsis to indicate a pause is usually the sign of a bad playwright or screenwriter.  My favorite playwright, Edward Albee, uses ellipses to indicate the pauses he intends for each line.  His attempts to direct the play from his typewriter make reading one of his plays an unpleasant experience.

So be…careful…about using the…ellipsis…in your…writing.  And for those of you chuckling because you don’t use ellipses – keep it down – I know that you like to use – dashes.  Yes, I do know – I’ve seen your writing.

And while real people often trail off a sentence in conversation, it has no place in business writing.  Yes, you might want to veil a written threat by trailing off a sentence that would have presumably included unpleasant actions you might take (such as “If you do not correct this error, we will be forced to …  I will leave it there, in the hopes that we will not be forced to take other action.”), but, please, leave this kind of threat language to your attorney.

QUESTION MARKS & EXCLAMATION POINTS.  A ‘?’ at the end of a sentence indicates that you are asking a question.  Typing ‘???’ at the end of a sentence suggests that you are exchanging text messages with a fourteen year old.  Using mulitiple question marks to indicate your impatience or anger does little to advance the conversation.  A reader will focus on the ‘???’ and try to decipher your meaning (and get mad if they sense your rudeness) rather than actually reading the question.

Multiple exclamation points also act a “dumbed-down” version of adult grammar.  The ‘!’ is (hopefully) so uncommonly-used in business writing that its inclusion in any letter will make the reader take notice.  There are some people who email me that seem to have developed an unintentional finger twitch that forces them to end every sentence with ‘!!!’.  I’ve begun deleting them because they’re so hard to read. 

Best rule for question marks and exclamation points?  Use them sparingly.  Much like curse words, they lose their effect when overused.  A signed Babe Ruth baseball card is so special because it’s rare.  Give your ‘!’ and ‘?’ the same treatment.

COMMAS.  The most common mistake with commas is using them in the wrong part of the sentence.  Many writers have heard that commas set off prepositional phrases or separate lists by telling the reader where to pause.  They turn this around to mean that any pause must be indicated by a comma. 

Not, a, chance.  (I wrote that last sentence, but I can barely stand looking at it.)

What most writers forget (and I’m guilty here, too!) is that everyone reads differently.  The trick is to de-clutter your writing so that it can be understood by a wide range of people.

Some folks read slow.  Others read out loud.  Still others skip all punctuation because of past experiences with bad writers.  Frankly, people know how to read and will pause when it’s convenient for them, not when you want them to.

IN CONCLUSION.  (Sorry – I just like the closing argument-like sound of that phrase!)  Be sparing.  Punctuation is meant to help your reader, not confuse them.