Reform school?

Declining standards of English are still a big concern, judging by the anticipated content of a government white paper due out today.

The reforms are expected to reverse much of what the Labour government brought in; such as the modular approach to examining, where pupils take a series of shorter exams spread out over two years rather than longer, more in-depth ones at the end of their studies.

Also set to return is marking pupils down – by up to five per cent – for poor use of punctuation and grammar in exams. Labour’s decision to scrap this system in 2003 has, according to education secretary Michael Gove, directly contributed to a drop in literacy skills.

‘Thousands of children – including some of our very brightest – leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar,’ he said. ‘The basic building blocks of English were demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning.’

The move seems particularly timely, given the recent pattern which has seen celebrities practically lining up to declare the English language is more abused than that cat that was put in a bin. Emma Thompson took against slang at her old school; while Marks and Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose has stated that too many school leavers are ‘not fit for work’.

Actress Penelope Keith last week lent her (rather cultivated) voice to the cause, decrying – for one – the detrimental effect of social media like Twitter on English usage. She told the Sunday Telegraph that ‘there are a lot of people you can’t actually understand’, thanks to their overuse of ‘tweets, and twits and texts’.

A renewed focus on the importance of these ‘building blocks’ of language is almost certainly worth celebrating. But before we all send a Twit of triumph to Penelope, a question: is this reform likely to be enough, or is it more of a cursory nod in the right direction?

Pause for commas

Compared with pondering the placement of the much less familiar semi-colon or the enigmatic apostrophe, the ubiquitous comma might seem hardly worth worrying about. They’re ten a penny, aren’t they? Why not just sprinkle them at will or leave them out entirely?

Unsurprisingly, we don’t recommend doing either. They may seem a common or garden item of punctuation, but – just like the elderly in society – we can learn much from commas and should treat them with respect.

So, use them:

•       to denote a natural pause, such as if you were reading aloud

Unfortunately, commas are often underrated.

•       after a secondary clause that’s been put at the beginning of a sentence

Although the comma had been left out of the speech, he still paused for dramatic effect.

•       to separate items in a list

My job involves typing, proofreading, answering the phone and stocktaking commas.

I’m looking for a tall, dark, handsome lover of punctuation.

•       to make it clear exactly how items are split (to avoid confusion, usually when the word ‘and’ is involved in the list)

The courses on offer were Introduction to colons, Intensive comma revision, Hyphens and dashes, and Figures and numbers.

•       in pairs, for information additional to the main point (that could be lifted out to leave a sentence that still makes complete sense)

The phone call, which lasted ten minutes, was mostly about Mary’s incorrect use of punctuation.

However, the information contained by the two commas has to be ‘non-defining’ (not vital to the overall gist of the sentence); if it is ‘defining’, you would use no commas at all:

The phone call that was about Mary’s poor punctuating was full of awkward pauses.

•       to introduce short quotes

He said, ‘Let’s take a short break here.’

Changing sense

Given the often ambiguous nature of our language, it is important to give pause to where you place your commas. Otherwise you may end up saying something other than you intended, or leaving your reader rather confused. Compare:

However, you might feel the report is irrelevant [and we may take that into consideration]


However you might feel, the report is irrelevant [your opinion doesn’t really matter].


I donated, myself, to that charity [I, like you, am a philanthropist]


I donated myself to that charity [not sure how much use they’ll have for me].

Or even

The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we [that's why the Common is so tidy]


The Wombles of Wimbledon, common are we [can’t move for wombles while watching the tennis].

Commas can make subtle distinctions too. Observe the nuances:

Our boss, who is based in Basingstoke, will be at that business writing seminar


Our boss who is based in Basingstoke will be at that business writing seminar.

In the first example, there is only one boss. He may be based in Basingstoke, but that is not vital information (it is ‘non-defining’). The main point is that he’ll be at the seminar. In the second example, there are presumably several bosses. But it is specifically the one lucky enough to be based in Basingstoke who will attend the seminar.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: punctuation matters. Particularly if you want your writing to end up meaning what you meant it to.

Ten tips for perfect punctuation

More people are unsure of their punctuation than would ever care to admit it. Use our quick guide to make sure you’re not one of them.

  1. Never use ‘its’ with an apostrophe unless it means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ – it’s amazing how many people use it wrongly.
  2. Beware also the greengrocer’s apostrophe (pea’s, carrot’s) when
    forming plurals. Apostrophes should usually only be used to show possession or omission. The exception is to avoid confusion when forming plurals of letters (eg A’s, which looks like ‘As’ if you leave out the
  3. Some people object to using ‘and’ or ‘but’ at the beginning of
    sentences. But this probably has more to do with lingering fears of that
    scary old English teacher you had years ago than any real grammatical
    rule. And that’s all there is to it. If you don’t believe us, look again
    at a Shakespeare play – or even a well-respected business magazine such
    as The Economist.
  4. Semi-colons (;) can replace ‘and’ or ‘but’. They denote a pause
    that’s longer than a comma but shorter than a full stop (or period).
    Think of them as ‘super commas’ if it helps. Don’t overuse them, though
    (see below).
  5. Colons can replace ‘so’, ‘therefore’ and ‘because’.
  6. The full stop (period) is the reader’s best friend – and it
    could be yours. It shortens sentences, making them easier to read. And
    it can get you out of a pickle when you’re trying to find a clever way
    of saying two or three things in the same sentence: just use two or
    three sentences instead.
  7. Use semi-colons, brackets and dashes sparingly, as they’re stylistically heavy. If in doubt, split the sentence.
  8. If you put additional information in a sentence, like this,
    remember to use commas or dashes either side of the information. It’s
    hard for the reader if they’re left out.
  9. Using all capitals on headings is hard on the eye, as it removes
    the all-important shape from words. (We use shape to recognise words
    more than you may realise.) So use initial capitals only.
  10. Too many exclamations are irritating!

Brackets (and how to use them)

So, those emoticon smiles: what else can they be used for?

Round brackets

Imagine the contents of round brackets (or parentheses) as an aside
that might be said behind your hand (an actor on a stage might anyway).

These punctuation marks come in handy to:

  • include optional information

You don’t have much time left to finish your Christmas shopping (only six shopping days!).

  • introduce an abbreviation or explain a term

At this time of year, many people suffer from Seasonal
Affective Disorder (SAD); although equally problematic during December
is pogonophobia (a fear of beards).

  • cross-refer

If you’re wondering where to put punctuation around brackets, you’ll soon find out (see below).

To learn more about pogonophobia, see The Big Book of Phobias (p92).

  • add authorial commentary (if appropriate to the context)

The effects of SAD can be quite debilitating (believe me).

  • cover several possible eventualities

The Christmas e-bulletin should be well-received by its already tipsy reader(s).

Square brackets

But parentheses are not to be confused with square brackets. These can be used to:

  • add an editor’s note or direction

Emphasis staff will be required to wear Santa hats to work throughout December [Catie to purchase these].

  • clarify meaning in a quote without changing any of the original words

She said, ‘If you make me wear that thing [the Santa hat] to work, I’m quitting.’

In these cases, you can just replace the word(s) being clarified eg

‘I said: if you make me put on [the Santa hat], I’m quitting. Humbug!’

Punctuating brackets

It can be confusing working out where to put the punctuation around brackets (but we’re here to help):

  • The first rule is quite straightforward. (If you are writing a
    full sentence inside them, the full stop – or alternative – should be
    inside the brackets.)
  • But the full stop will be on the outside if the brackets contain only part of the full sentence (as these do).
  • Put a comma outside the brackets (as demonstrated here), when those brackets appear at the end of a clause within the sentence.
  • If the bracketed aside needs a question mark or exclamation mark, you’ll still need to add a full stop on the outside to complete
    the sentence (like this!).

Tune in to business-writing radio

Now, we know it’s not considered good form to blow one’s own trumpet, but – just this once – we hope you’ll forgive us a little toot. We’ve produced something we think you’ll want to hear.

We’ve produced a podcast. And by gum, we’re really rather proud of it. Firstly (unlike some podcasts) it doesn’t sound like it was recorded in someone’s bedroom. Plus, it must be said: it’s got great credentials – presented by 6 Music’s Clare McDonnell, and produced by Melissa Da Silva, who spent 13 years working in BBC radio (and now also runs courses for us).

But the main reason for us polishing up our brass is that our podcast is actually (gasp) useful. For example, in October’s edition alone you’ll hear about how to get the best out of your emails, tips on defining your report’s core message, the low-down on the success of the Government’s swine flu leaflets and how to win a place on one of our courses. Phew.

Speaking of useful items, our podcast is just one aspect of our new support section on our recently souped up website. Check out the rest here.