Why you should be a punctuation minimalist

At Articulate, we believe that needless punctuation is a speed bump for readers. We’re punctuation minimalists and you should be too.

How people read

People don’t read text continuously. Instead, their eyes jump forward a few words at a time, every quarter of a second or so.

But about 15 percent of the time, their eyes jump back, often when they don’t understand something or if they trip over some page furniture like unnecessary punctuation.

Needless punctuation slows readers

How people read online

It’s even worse when people go online. Now their eyes are hopping about the page like a barefoot child on hot sand, as you can see in this eyeball tracking heat map of a typical webpage:

Heatmap showing how people read a page online

Avoiding punctuation speed bumps

Our approach is to minimise everything that gets between our words and the reader’s brain. This means:

  • Replacing punctuation marks with words.
  • Only capitalising proper nouns and the first word in a sentence or headline. Yes, this includes the internet.
  • Not using full stops in abbreviations such as Mr, Dr, eg or ie.
  • Not using an ‘Oxford comma’ before the ‘and’ in a list.
  • Writing dates without superscripts (eg 12 July 1969).
  • Avoiding acronyms wherever possible.
  • Avoiding trademark bugs wherever possible.
  • Not using italic text because it’s too busy.
  • Using single quotes for speech not double quotes. It’s half as much punctuation!
  • Only one space after a comma.
  • Spelling out numbers from one to ten.
  • Choosing short words instead of long ones. (This is good for other reasons too.)
  • Ruthless editing. (See: Ten ways to slim down obese copy.)

We know that some of these choices are controversial. But we have a good reason for preferring our choices: we want to make it easier for people to read what we write.

Articulate Punctuation rules

Learn more

If you want to learn more about business writing, come along to one of our evening talks in London:

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 Responses to Why you should be a punctuation minimalist

  1. Andrew May 22, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    Would this be a bad time to admit that I have a real soft spot for the Oxford comma? I would agree however that it does disrupt the flow of speedy reading.

    • Matthew Stibbe May 23, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      Personally, I have a soft spot for the tilde character. A bit of an orphan punctuation mark but for some reason I’ve always used it to mean ‘about’. For example ~10 means (to me) a number roughly between 8 and 12. As for the Oxford comma, I think it’s utterly superfluous but I don’t think that should stop you using it if you want to, Andrew! :)

      • Dan May 23, 2013 at 10:53 am #

        The Oxford comma might be often superfluous, but sometimes you really need it. The Guardian style guide has a nice example:

        I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling

        compared with

        I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

        • Matthew Stibbe May 23, 2013 at 11:46 am #

          Yes, indeed. I wouldn’t insist on dropping the comma if it’s the only thing that makes the sentence clear. But, really, if one little comma is the only thing between sense and nonsense, I would question the writing rather than the punctuation.

  2. Alina May 23, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    While I do not use full stop in Mr, Mrs, Dr etc. (Longman dictionary says that Mr., Dr. with the full stop are used in American English, while without the full stop in British English), I think ‘eg’ and ‘ie’ look weird and ‘naked’.

    • Matthew Stibbe May 23, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

      I know what you mean. I struggled at first when we made the switch earlier this year for our corporate style guide. It’s not helped when Microsoft Word flags it up as a mistake! But there’s a good consistent rationale for it and after a while it gets easier.

  3. John Sarra June 12, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    Eliminating acronyms in the software documentation we produce would be like taking away a teenager’s cell phone.

    • Matthew Stibbe June 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

      I know the feeling! Of course, in a technical product manual some acronyms or product-specific phrases are inevitable but it’s best to use common language alternatives if possible.

Leave a Reply