Two Reasons Why More Punctuation Is Better Than Less

What the Brits get wrong and Americans get right.

Posted Jun 13, 2018

If you don't know how to punctuate an adverb clause or couldn't advise someone when to use a semicolon rather than a colon—even with a gun to your head—consider the two standards for punctuation in English:

  • The British standard hews to minimalism, which also suits the British proclivity for understatement. Following this standard, you rely on periods (the British "full stop") as your main piece of puncutation and use commas largely to separate items in lists. But you mainly eschew punctuation whenever possible.
  • In contrast, the American standard is, unsurprisingly, maximalist. Sentences bristle with commas, coupled with the occasional set of parentheses, as well as dashes, colons, and semicolons. The New Yorker, which famously employs a full-time grammarian, even inserts entirely unnecessary commas before prepositional phrases at the ends of sentences. (Note to The New Yorker editors: Only insert commas at the ends of prepositional phrases when they begin sentences and run to seven words or longer—or when the comma aids in disambiguation. Both scenarios prevent readers from missing the break between the introductory phrase and main clause.)

So which standard is correct? I'll avoid the academic response, which is that everything is relative, and context is everything. Instead — and I speak as a dual national who spent most of a career writing for a British audience — the Americans are correct. I also once dedicated an entire afternoon to inserting commas into a document for the Royal Bank of Scotland, only to discover someone in Legal had removed all of them. The lawyers who subtracted those commas should have considered the scenario in which Northern Telecom once lost a multi-million dollar lawsuit over a misplaced comma. Yes, Virginia, commas do have a purpose, other than cluttering up the page.

Punctuation always disambiguates. Those commas and colons aid readers separated from the writer by time, space, and the sheer logistics of a one-to-many form of communication, a scenario common even in inter-office emails. A well-placed comma prevents readers from misreading and misinterpreting sentences, from the necessity of rereading, and even from entering into a contract under a mistaken set of assumptions about its conditions. Given the litigiousness of your typical American, punctuation is a valuable safeguard against expensive misunderstandings.

Putting less punctuation into your sentences does not make them read more "cleanly". Instead, more punctuation makes your sentences likelier to be understood at a first reading than sentences where you need to guess where, say, the opening clause ends and the main clause picks up.

Use punctuation liberally, even if the word clause causes you to break out in a sweat, and your knowledge of punctuation ends with "put a comma in wherever you would pause in reading aloud." Better yet, get your hands on a guide to punctuation that supports its rules with reasons linked to grammar because punctuation exists to cue your readers to the structure of your sentences and the roles played by words, much in the way that pauses in spoken sentences tell us where one phrase ends and another clause begins.