To punctuate or not punctuate? That is the UX writing question
Mark said, “Mary said, ‘Mark said, “Mary said, ‘Mark said, “Mary said, ‘Mark said, “Mary said, ‘Mark said, “Mary said, ‘Mark said, “Mary said, ‘This is deep.’ ” ‘ ” ‘ ” ‘ ” ‘ ” ‘ “
The above sentence is grammatically correct. Ugly, isn’t it? It looks somewhat like a chicken has walked over the text.
This is why most digital copy avoids using anything beyond basic punctuation where possible. Even print newspaper style guides recommend avoiding all but the essential punctuation. In certain circumstances, however, it’s an even bigger issue for user experience.
Let’s explore the challenges of punctuation in digital interfaces and offer some recommendations.
Say you need to advise your customer to send an email to a particular address:
Please send an email to email@example.com.
The technically savvy will know that emails don’t end with a full stop. However, what if you’re writing for a site giving advice on pensions; an older user base may not be too confident with email and include the full stop. In fact it would be easy for any user to copy and paste the address, while accidentally including the full stop at the end – “firstname.lastname@example.org.”.
Similarly, you might want to direct a user to click a button with a label, as below:
Click on the button labelled: “Click here”
Grammar would recommend using quotation marks in signposting the button, as I have above. However, a user might be briefly baffled trying to find the button that had the quotation marks on it, rather than just the text.
Punctuation wasn’t designed with digital content in mind and good orthography can occasionally clash with good UX design, not to mention aesthetic appeal. So, does that mean punctuation should be left behind? Perhaps not.
Punctuation is all Greek to me
Language was originally written down without punctuation marks, but the ancient Greeks introduced marks into their text to aid them with their primary pre-occupation – public speaking. Just as written music tells you what speed to play notes, punctuation was intended to tell you how to pace your speech when reading out text.
Of course, no-one is intending your website to be read out from a podium at an event, but ask yourself this: are you reading out this article to yourself in your head right now? Of course you are, just as your users are reading your site to themselves, and that’s a lot easier to do with the right punctuation.
For example, there’s an infamous and apocryphal story among writers regarding a Dear John letter sent by telegram without punctuation. On the one hand, the letter could be interpreted thusly:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours?
On the other, with different punctuation, you could read the letter as:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Of course, Jane would be a pretty poor writer to produce something that unclear, but there are plenty of real-life examples where lack of punctuation has led to some embarrassing double-entendres. Check out this Buzzfeed article for a few howlers.
Punctuation is credibility
Let me share a message I was tagged in on Instagram recently:
Now there are numerous warning signs here, including using ASDA’s logo for a profile picture despite clearly not being ASDA-affiliated. Still, it might have taken me a few moments to realise that, if the message wasn’t so nonsensical that I could tell it was spam instantly.
As Kyle Wiens, the entrepreneur founder of ifixit.com, famously told the Harvard Business Review, “Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet.” If your writing sounds like a Russian hacker cobbling together a message from what they know of English in order to con someone into giving away their account details, the user will probably assume that’s what you are.
So what’s the solution? Do you have to choose between a confusing and dodgy-looking site without punctuation, or a punctuated one that’s ugly and difficult to use? Thankfully not.
Like all things in life, there needs to be a balance. Carefully consider what amount of punctuation will make your site text easy to read and to understand, but not interfere with the visual appeal or the usability.
On some occasions, there will be a difficult choice to make between using punctuation and harming UX. On those occasions, your best bet is to hire a copywriter as an escape artist. Careful rewording of a sentence and optimising page layout can lead to text that makes perfect sense without using punctuation.
Compare the example from the start of this article with a reworded version below:
The proclamation that this was a deep situation was repeated by both Mark and Mary until neither of them knew where the conversation started.
This conveys the same information without the ridiculous over-punctuation. Any competent wordsmith will know when punctuation improves the user experience and when it gets in the way, which is exactly what you need to know to optimise the UX of your site.
Eats, shoots and leaves
If you want to read an overview of everything there is to know about punctuation, I would heartily recommend looking up the definitive text on the matter, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation by Lynne Truss, which includes a final thought for you:
“We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.”
Neil Sheppard has been a UX copywriter and content strategist for nearly a decade. Starting out as a pharmaceutical stock markets journalist, Neil quickly moved into digital copywriting, managing a team optimising product content for a busy commercial website. Nowadays, Neil helps companies create easy-to-use internal websites and digital employee manuals that make complex processes simple for everyone from CEOs to service desk agents.