Punctuation Functions: The Period Piece

Full Stop Punctuationville: All About the PeriodIn my little discussions about using punctuation effectively, I have yet to meet someone who pleads, “Oh, I desperately need more information about the period.” Quite the opposite. When I mention the period, the universal reaction is something like, “Ha! Well, I certainly already know everything I need to know about THAT.”

That is when I summon up an almost-sincere half-smile and say, “Oh, of course you do. However, you have already paid for a tutoring session, so we might as well go through the review anyway.”

Here’s the thing: everyone knows a period belongs at the end of a sentence—unless preempted by an exclamation point, question mark, or ellipsis. That seems so straightforward that almost everyone considers the lesson over—it is not. Knowing which end of the sentence gets a period is not the same as knowing how to deploy it strategically. As it turns out, strategic use of periods is highly important for nonfiction writing generally, and for writing professional website content in particular.

Here’s the Secret: You Are Not Using Periods Often Enough

Let’s look at some honest-to-goodness excerpts from legal website content. As usual, specific details have been altered so not to embarrass writers or law firms:

  • Attorneys Max Advocate and Karen Counselor are available from the moment the accident occurs until the final verdict is read, taking care of all the technical details of your case so you and your family can concentrate on what really matters. (41 words)
  • You need to consider whether or not this negative outcome was truly avoidable; if the medical professional you worked with did not provide a certain standard of care and you feel that other doctors would have done things differently, you may have a medical malpractice case. (46 words)
  • Officers won’t necessarily tell you that you’re being treated as a suspect, and it’s possible that they may be asking questions because they believe you’re a witness, relative of a suspect or victim, or otherwise may have information that will help them make an arrest. (45 words)
  • Attorney Ernest Litigator has helped businesses of all kinds fight unfair treatment and resolve their fire insurance claims, and he’d like to share some information about how to spot “bad faith” practices after a fire and what you can do to fight back. (43 words)
  • Under the proposed rule, FMCSA-regulated truck and bus companies, medical review officers, substance abuse professionals, and private, third-party USDOT drug and alcohol testing labs would be required to record information about a driver who fails a drug or alcohol test; refuses to submit to a drug or alcohol test; or successfully completes any substance abuse program and is legally qualified to return to duty. (64 words)

What do these sentences have in common? Right, the word count is an important clue: these sentences are very long. And that is not good. Lengthy sentences scare away the readers you are trying to covert into clients, patients, or customers.

Occasionally, longer sentences—perhaps in the range of 20 to 30 words—can provide variety or emphasis in an essay. Sentences with even more words should be avoided. How can you do that? When possible, cut the lengthy sentence into two or more shorter ones, deploying the period judiciously. Some sentences that are welded together with semicolons, relative pronouns, or conjunctions will vanish, but they will be replaced with pithy sentences that pack a bigger punch. That is because a shorter, simpler sentence constricts the scope of meaning; the short sentence deals intently with one idea, which a compound sentence dilutes the reader’s attention across many ideas.

Shorter is usually better. Try it and see.

The Other Uses for the Period Bring Other Pitfalls

To be complete, we should at least glance at other uses for the period—also called the point or the full stop. Among those functions:

  • To mark abbreviations of some units of measurement. Metric units such as cm, ml, or kg have never used periods in their abbreviations. English (or Imperial) measurements are increasingly dropping the periods, too; some usage guides now recommend ft for “feet” and tbsp for “tablespoon.” Follow the style guide preferred by the organization for which you write.
  • To follow the number in numeric lists, or to follow letters or Roman numerals in an outline form.
  • To use U.S. as the abbreviation for the United States when used as an adjective.
  • To mark decimal values. Note, however, that the practice in some European nations is to use a comma when American usage would put a decimal point. So 0,25 would be one-fourth.
  • To mark the “dot” in Internet addresses.
  • To note certain Latin abbreviations. Everyone recognizes etc. and P.S., but the full list includes ibid., op. cit., e.g., i.e., and many others.
  • To mark abbreviations for some titles, honorifics, and academic degrees. Before a name, these can include Dr., Mrs., Sen., and Rev. After a name, these might include Ph.D. and M.D.

English is the language of special cases and exceptions to the rule. When we are talking about periods, most of the special handling is required when periods conflict with other punctuation. For examples:

  • When an abbreviation that ends in a period is the final word in a declarative sentence, use only one period, not two. Example: The Lincoln Memorial is a must-visit stop for your trip to Washington, D.C.
  • If a direct quotation ends with a declarative sentence, the period is placed inside the quotation marks. Example: Shakespeare’s best advice is found in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
  • When a sentence ends in a phrase enclosed in parentheses, and if that phrase could stand alone as an independent sentence, then put one period at the end of the main sentence and another within the parentheses. If the parenthetical expression could not function on its own, then the period—only one, this time—follows the closing parenthesis. Example: All the girls in the senior class doted on Kenneth, the football quarterback. (But he had eyes only for Mona.) Another example: We got married in May, but we are waiting for our honeymoon until August (when airline travel will be less expensive).

Who Knew This Would Be So Complicated?

The period is the simplest punctuation mark in the printer’s box—yet, as we have seen, it can seem awfully complicated even in everyday use. That fact has led some writers down a short road to despair. “How can I produce great content for my business website,” they ask, “when I cannot even figure out whether to use a period or a comma?”

I sympathize. No, I really do; it was not that long ago I felt the same way. But I promise you that content writing gets easier over time. Each article you post will buoy your confidence and will make you a better writer.

It also helps to have a good support team. You have one right here: Foster Web Marketing. We want our partners to succeed. Nothing would please us more than to help you develop your best writing skills to propel your business forward. Start out by reading the writing blogs here on our website; then, if you need customized help, call our team toll-free.

 

Be the first to comment!
Post a Comment