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punctuation

Unintended meanings

I was recently reminded that it is important to take care not to communicate anything different to your words and intentions. That is, your words may tell one story but the context will also communicate a message and you want them to match.

A sign in our motel during last week’s trip to Canberra read

Due to “health regulations” no pets allowed in rooms

The quotation marks are completely unnecessary and mean either the person writing the sign didn’t know that (not a great message to send out, but common enough) or they were making a point about the regulations. That is, the writer thinks the regulations are silly, inappropriate, ineffective, irrelevant or such and therefore calls them “regulations’ to point out they are not well accepted.

Maybe disagreeing with the regulations shows some support of pets and pet lovers, but to me it is not very professional or reassuring. If you have no respect for the regulations, how can I be sure you are sticking to them in ways I would want you to? If a health inspector visits, how will they respond to implications of inferior regulations?

When you consider every word you write, remember to also consider the surrounding details such as punctuation, images and placement so that you are not giving any unintended messages.

Which punctuation mark do I use?

Sometime when using quotation marks at the end of a sentence or phrase, it would seem that two punctuation marks are required (one for the quote and one for the sentence).

However, you only ever use one punctuation mark, whether it is a full stop, exclamation mark, question mark, or anything else, at the end of a sentence.

In order to know which one to use, consider which is more powerful and use that one.

Some examples:

The teacher yelled out ‘Quiet!’
Did you say ‘John will fix my car’?
Someone might wonder ‘why did he choose that colour?’

Exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!!!

Last year, my daughter was taught about reading exclamation marks – that is, if she was reading something out loud and saw an exclamation mark, she knew to raise her voice at the end of that sentence.

Today, I was asked how to stop using too many exclamation marks in writing – and I found it an interesting question!

I can’t say how many exclamation marks is too many – it depends on the length of the document and the context, of course. But over use of exclamation marks can cheapen the impact of your message, making it look like hype and unprofessional. An exclamation mark shows a statement as something a bit out of the ordinary – a lot of them and all those statements become ordinary.

If you use exclamation marks because they are fun and help you express yourself, I suggest you still use them as you write – and then go back and remove many of them as you edit. This way, you still have the fun of adding them but can moderate it before anyone else reads your writing.

However, if you use exclamation marks to emphasise your points, perhaps you need more faith in the message and how you present it. A strong statement is strong whether or not you add an exclamation mark.

Here are some ideas for changing your writing to reduce the need for exclamation marks:

  • use very short sentences to express important points
  • make the sentence very clear – exclamation marks should enhance the emotion of the sentence rather than provide it
  • put a single sentence as a paragraph for emphasis
  • use bullet points to make a series of points
  • headings and sub-headings are already visually different so they rarely need an exclamation mark
  • use positive words and expression, including adjectives, to show your enthusiasm

Use your words wisely, and you will find less need for exclamation marks!