28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVI

Punctuation should be used sparingly for efficient reading.

A lot of thought is often put into interaction design, from information hierarchy to iconography to computer feedback. Experts are hired to check every last detail of the user experience, making sure those who use a product, visit a website or subscribe to a service encounter the fewest possible problems. But all too often, one overlooked aspect lies in the content itself–not in the way information is typeset or presented on a page, but the way the copy is structured.

One reason for this oversight is the idea that textual information, although commonly the primary reason behind a design, is still thought to be separate from the design itself, akin to a beautifully garnished and decorated platter used to present a meal still in the shape of the can from which it was removed. Poorly written text will look bad no matter how much thought is given to placement, spacing and choice of typeface.

I discussed quotation marks in a previous entry, but other forms of punctuation, when used judiciously and in the proper context, can also give the viewer an immediate feeling of professionalism, subconscious as it may be. At the same time, sloppy and unnecessary punctuation can portray a more amateur feeling.

Every punctuation mark has its place within a passage of text, calling from the viewer a unique reaction based on the understanding of how that punctuation has been used in the past. Because our language is still evolving, guidelines need to be reconsidered every so often; standards that held true just a few decades ago may be considered out of date–and therefore out of touch with the audience–in today’s practices. To explain what makes one idea acceptable and another obsolete, a few real-world metaphors can be applied to punctuation.

The colon is, loosely speaking, the literary equivalent of the equal sign; what comes after the colon should equal what came before. For instance:

Pear: the greatest fruit in the world.

It was then I learned the truth: my father was a ninja.

This shows that the word or phrase on the left (pear or truth) is equal to the definition or explanation on the right, that the two mean the same thing. However, the colon should not be used in the context of a full sentence:

The pear is the greatest fruit in the world.

It was then I learned my father was a ninja.

In other cases, the colon is usually reserved for when the author has something of great importance, such as a revelation, or a list of items or names that probably wouldn’t be spoken in a casual conversation.

Think of the colon as a spotlight on stage–the really bright kind used to suddenly reveal the face of the murderer or highlight the fact that the priceless vase has been stolen. It’s something you’d take a, extra breath before continuing, either for dramatic effect or because you’ve got a lot to say. Most people wouldn’t write, “In my bag, I’ve got: a banana.” (You might if you were preparing your audience for a list of items for comic effect.) But if your bag was packed with a long list of goods, you’d be more prone to taking that breath in the middle. “In my bag, I’ve got: (breath) a banana, some rope, a lunchbox full of dog food, a protractor, some sidewalk chalk, half a peanut butter cookie and a yo-yo.” This would be the perfect time to use a colon, which tells the reader to prepare for a substantial list of items.

My friend TJ designed this college catalog, and put his name on the final page. Because he’s the only one who worked on it, his name was all alone, and the sentence didn’t need that colon, which breaks the flow of a complete sentence. Now, if he’d dropped the word by, the colon would be a more natural fit for that context (Catalog design: TJ Barlow).

If the colon is like a spotlight, the ellipsis is like a drum roll, preparing the reader to expect something important and worth waiting for. Ellipses are used to signify a pause in one’s speech, and readers will most likely imagine a dramatic pause when a series of dots is encountered. There are a few places ellipses might be called for, but because of the gap they place within a line of speech, they are often more typographically bothersome than useful. Physically three times wider than the space a period occupies, an ellipsis can interrupt the flow of text more than a writer might expect.

Another problem with ellipses is a sense of forced excitement they present, much like placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that doesn’t carry the giddy exuberance of a kid with a new pair of roller skates. This type of punctuation seems awkward and out of place when teamed up with sentences that just don’t call for them.

This sign warns drivers of the possibility of having their cars towed, and explicitly states who will be paying the bill, but ending the sentence with an ellipsis implies a deeper connotation or serious consequence. It’s meant to force an air of authority, the kind of threat a mother ends with “or else,” without actually saying what that else will be. But it’s stated pretty clearly here, and I can’t think of anything else that needs to be . The sentence is fairly complete (although it could use an article and an apostrophe), and nothing else really needs to be said.

There’s another punctuation mark that is slowly fading out of fashion, but it still appears from time to time: periods used in contractions and initials. My friend TJ uses periods in his own name above, and the extra dots are little more than stumbling blocks for the reader’s eyes. Many abbreviations, such as Mr, Mrs, Jr, Sr, etc (especially etc) have outgrown the need for periods; we all know what they mean without the help of added punctuation, and they often get in the way when ending a sentence with an abbreviated word–does that sentence end with the word etc. or does the dot indicate that it’s a truncated word? In the spotlight / drum roll analogy, the period used in places other than the end of a sentence could be thought of as a skipped beat during a music performance. Not jazz or improvisational music, either, a performance otherwise devoid of skipped beats.

Years ago, we stopped writing to-day and placing an apostrophe in the word ‘phone, because those words became common enough to understand without the help of added marks telling use how to interpret them. Type is meant to emulate the flow of speech, but also to present that speech in a more polished manner than we are expected to deliver in casual conversation. If anything calls for a polished, professional voice, it’s the text we provide to our customers, our market groups and our users. Any amount of text cluttered with unnecessary punctuation will lower the chance that it will be read and taken seriously.

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