The cost of bad punctuation

I have worked in the IT industry for twelve years and before that I taught English as a foreign language for eight years.

During my first months in IT, I was sent on a two-day course on presentation skills. At the end of the course, everyone had to prepare and deliver a six-minute presentation. We were all invited to criticise each other’s presentations. I noticed that several of my class mates had used semi-colons where they should have used colons. I pointed this out and explained the difference.

“Yeah, but does it really matter?” was the general attitude, with eyes raised to heaven.

“Yes, because I want my audience to focus on my message rather than on my level of literacy,” was my response.

Correct English does matter in business but the worst offenders are IT people. They make up words where words already exist and their punctuation is appalling. What is the cost of this? Well, here is an example that has affected every IT system that uses a database.

apostropheWhen database query languages were first invented, a semi-literate programmer decided to use the apostrophe character instead of the single-quote character for programming database queries. The following is an example.

SELECT * FROM customertable WHERE customersurname = ‘Chellar’

Grand and lovely. Except that when the customer’s name is O’Brien, the query falls over because the query language thinks the query ends after the “O” and then wonders what the “Brien'” rubbish is all about. There are all sorts of ways around this, but they all cost time and time is money. Thanks to the semi-literacy of that one programmer, database queries all over the world cost more than they should. I daresay that cost runs into multi-millions.

So yes, getting your punctuation right does matter.


  • Attention to detail is a good thing

By the way, the latin word “Re” doesn’t take a colon; thanks to Microsoft Outlook, however, most e-mail users in the world think it does.

Kind regards,

Declan Chellar

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2 comments to The cost of bad punctuation

  • Paraic Hegarty

    Declan, you know that I completely agree with you in relation to grammar, punctuation and spelling. In business, it is just not acceptable to get these things wrong – especially in premeditated and proofed content. We’ve all made mistakes in IM sessions, etc. and there’s no shame in that. When it comes to literature, the rules are there to be broken.

    What worries me about IT people with poor grammar, etc. is that it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the rules. Yet, a programmer must understand all sorts of syntax rules about programming languages or their programs won’t compile. I remember many an hour sweating over a program due to a misplaced semicolon in an ‘if/then’ statement.

  • I hate it when we agree, Paraic. I learn so much more when we disagree! 🙂

    But, yes, precision is a mind-set and you either choose to have that mind-set or you don’t.

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