“… punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling”.
The Oxford English dictionary cites the word ‘punctilious: showing great attention to detail or correct behaviour’.
It is no coincidence that the word, ‘punctilious’ applies as much to manners, as it does to punctuation. In the introduction to Lynne Truss’s ‘Eats. Shoots & Leaves’. She refers:
‘…the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: “…that punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling”’.
Indeed, in the preface to Debrett’s handbook: British style, correct form, and modern manners 2015 edition:
‘Etiquette is about understanding and mastering a set of clear and pragmatic guidelines that have evolved to make everyone feel welcome and valued. Manners make everyday life easier, removing anxiety and minimizing social difficulties or awkwardness. Politeness, therefore, does not intimidate or create barriers: instead it should make communication clearer. Etiquette must adapt and shift with time, especially as we become increasingly absorbed in our own digital bubble (screens, keyboards, headphones), which may erode the ability to observe, and interact with those around us’.
Good letter writing has evolved through passage of time. Who winces at bad spelling, or a ‘Dear Sir’, with a ‘yours sincerely’? A well-written letter filed with pleasantries has a host of benefits: to treat other people as you would wish to be treated; to be inclusive; to acknowledge the humanity and civility of one person to another, and so I pose a rhetorical question: why should there be any difference in form and substance, in grammar and spelling, in structure, and in etiquette when communicating using different media (i.e. text messages, emails, social media communications).
Are we in such a rush with these new-founded economies of communication that we cannot pause to think about what and why we are writing, or replying? The benefits of responding to a letter by ‘slow-mail’, are that one has time to think about a reply. The disadvantages of ‘fast-mail’ are an expectation to maintain a fast pace. There is an unreasonable expectation imposed upon all of us to provide substantive replies but in so doing, what is sacrificed in quality, and in sentiment?
It is far better to briefly acknowledge an email, and to give some time-period in which a full reply might be given, than to entirely ignore an email, or other electronic communication. How rude!
If the need to reply to fast-mail is unavoidable, I proffer some tips:
- Do not reply to anything in anger. To do so is to abandon all sense of logic and rationale. Literally walk away from wherever you are reading what has upset or insulted you, and wait until you have calmed yourself down, or else you will regret saying something that you ought not to have said.
- Do not press ‘reply’, or ‘reply to all’, and start to draft a response, lest you inadvertently press ‘send’ when you are not ready to do so. A way to safeguard an accidental ‘send’, is to set up a delay between pressing ‘send’, and the ‘fast-mail’ itself being sent.
- Give yourself time to think about what message you seek to convey. Do think about punctuation. A well-drafted, punctuated ‘fast-mail’ will give the reader a better sense of direction and guidance. The consequences of mispunctuation may cause confusion and lack of clarity. Consider the following over-quoted sentences, (the original source of which I do not know):
The importance of being punctilious
‘A woman, without her man, is nothing’.
‘A woman: without her, man is nothing’.
4. Always be aware that nothing that is ever written in any form of communication, remains confidential. Would you, the writer, be comfortable having a communication read out in court, or entering a public arena?
Professor David Rosen is a solicitor-advocate and principal of David Rosen & Co. He regularly lectures at Brunel University and tries to remember to be always polite, but being human and a battle-hardened litigator, he slips from time to time. There is always room for improvement.