So You Put a Comma in the Wrong Place. Who Really Cares?

Yesterday I received an email followed by a text from a former boss asking if I was available to do something for him quickly. Surprised, I shot back a quick, “What do you need?” After all, he knows I do freelance work. But I was already suspicious before I got the fraudulent request to buy seven $100 gift cards. Why? Because the communications were full of errors.

Of course, as an editor I’m trained to spot those things—but I also knew that wasn’t like my former boss (who holds a graduate degree). All of his previous emails had been relatively error-free. At least nothing had stood out to me in his communications that I had ever questioned.

What does that situation have to do with putting commas in the right place? I would argue that clear and precise communication matters. I also contend that messy, ungrammatical emails (and yes, sometimes even texts) can make you seem uninformed or uneducated (and in the case of the person pretending to be my former boss, criminal).

Can you think of some situations where that might matter? To name just a few: when you’re looking for a job, sending a business proposal, communicating with a current or potential client or creating clinical notes to communicate about a patient, or—as in my case—preventing fraud.

But you don’t have to be a word nerd (like me) to know the basics of putting together clear sentences and paragraphs that communicate what you actually want to say. For those who would like to spruce up their skills in English grammar and punctuation, I recommend a tiny little book called The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It doesn’t take long to read and will give you all the instruction you need to communicate more effectively—and correctly.

So—who really cares where you put your commas? Considering that well-placed punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence, we all should care. Observe the following two sentences that contain identical words but have distinctly opposite meanings, all because of how they are punctuated:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.