Punctuation Errors Can Cost Jobs, Money, Esteem

By Loeffler, William | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

Punctuation Errors Can Cost Jobs, Money, Esteem


Loeffler, William, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


For Jeff Rubin, spotting a punctuation error in a newspaper or book is like finding a fly in his soup. It renders the whole thing unfit for consumption.

"Punctuation is like the little lost stepchild of literacy," says Rubin, a former newspaper reporter living in Pinole, Calif.

It's a safe bet none of the world leaders meeting Thursday for the first day of the G-20 summit are aware that it's also National Punctuation Day. Rubin founded it in 2004 after he got fed up with seeing misplaced apostrophes and other transgressions by people who should know better -- newspaper reporters and editors, book publishers and billboard advertisers.

"No one cares," he says. "That's my pet peeve, that a lot of people who are doing this don't care. Where's their pride? Where's their self-esteem? Where's their drive to get it right?"

Falling on Sept. 24, National Punctuation Day promotes literacy by encouraging schools and businesses to conduct activities, programs, games or contests related to the almighty comma, period and apostrophe. It's listed in two directories published by McGraw Hill, "Chases Calendar of Events" and "The Teacher's Calendar."

Rubin also created a Web site, www.nationalpunctuationday.com, which lists the proper usage of punctuation marks and invites visitors to post photos of incorrect road or restaurant signs. This year, they're also promoting a Punctuation Baking Contest, where entrants can submit recipes for cookies, cakes, pastries or bread baked in the shape of a question mark or other punctuation.

It may seem like a quixotic and thankless quest trying to eradicate signs in store windows that read "Children must be accompanied by parent's." Or e-mail replies that say "Your welcome!" But those tiny marks are the mortar that hold our language together, say Rubin and other advocates. But those tiny marks are the mortar that hold our language together, say Rubin and other advocates.

Ken Gormley, interim dean of Duquesne University of School of Law, says attorneys aren't scoring any points with a judge if they submit a legal brief with punctuation errors.

"If your job is to communicate and be effective, if you have people stumbling over poor punctuation, they get distracted, and there's smoke coming out their ears because they see a semi-colon where there should be a colon," Gormley says. "The whole point is to be able to persuade them."

"If I get a cover letter that has a bad sentence or mispunctuation, that's a killer, much more so than on a resume," says Irving Firman, hiring shareholder at Tucker and Arensberg, a Downtown law firm. "A resume isn't really like anything else you're going to do for my firm, but a letter is something you're going to do every day."

Proper punctuation also is crucial in the business sector. In 2006, a misplaced comma cost a Canadian cable television company more than $2 million when a court ruled that the errant squib changed the meaning of the company's contract with another firm.

Even so, it can be tough to advocate for strict punctuation rules without appearing like a Victorian chaperone making sure that boys and girls don't dance too close together.

Advocates have tried various approaches to put their message across. Rubin and his wife, Norma Martinez, devised "Punctuation Playtime," a 45-minute program of skits, contests and a "punctuation rap." They've performed it in nearly 80 schools around the country. In 2003, former BBC radio host Lynne Truss used Monty Pythonesque humor in her book "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" (Gotham Books, $12 ). It was a surprise best-seller.

Chris Studebaker uses "Seinfeld" when trying to impress the importance of punctuation upon his seventh grade students at Dorseyville Middle School, where he teaches language arts.

He'll show his students a scene from an episode where Elaine and her boyfriend bicker over the use of an exclamation point. …

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