“Punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers understand a story without stumbling.” – Lynn Truss, Author of NYT Bestselling Eats, Shoots, and Leaves
Looking back, I can trace the root of it all to 1994, with the advent of “casual Fridays.” What for my younger self seemed a respite from convention soon revealed itself as yet another impossible decision point. How casual is business casual? Pink Polo button-down or hot pink mock turtle neck? Dark blue or slightly faded jeans? Or wait, maybe khakis…and if so, pleated or flat front?
Fast forward to 2019, when, once again, the loosening of tradition has created a new dilemma so profound that it warrants a category in my pie-chart of daily activities: sleep, work, eat, care for children … stress about inappropriate use of exclamation points.
When I write to a potential client, and we just had a feel good “get-to-know-you” phone call, and we bonded about the challenges of work-life balance, how on earth do I punctuate the post-game email?
Here are the current options:
I am so glad we had a chance to connect today. I look forward to working with your associates in their professional development training. I can envision a program in which we provide individual feedback to each seminar participant to expedite their growth as effective communicators. I appreciate the ability to think creatively about your training goals, and look forward to the program next month.
I am so glad we had a chance to connect today! I look forward to working with your associates in their professional development training! I can envision a program in which we provide individual feedback to each seminar participant to expedite their growth as effective communicators! I appreciate the ability to think creatively about your training goals, and look forward to the program next month!
Or wait…we can do this [with emojis]:
I am so glad we had a chance to connect today. [Smiley face.] I look forward to working with your associates in their professional development training. [Book emoji.] I can envision a program in which we provide individual feedback to each seminar participant to expedite their growth as effective communicators. [Tree emoji, coupled with a race-neutral talking emoji.] I appreciate the ability to think creatively about your training goals, and look forward to the program next month. [Thumbs up.]
Confession time. I am not a rebel, an agitator, or even a moderate change-driver. I am a law professor and business writing consultant who naïvely believes in the sanctity of the English language. I would never deign to think I could improve upon it. Like a believer in the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution (which, for the record, I am not), I had a sense that my inability to find the just-right punctuation for a business email showing some degree of collegiality reflected my own shortcomings.
But after years of bottling up my truth, I am feeling empowered. Hell, I turned 50 last year, and I am looking to streamline the things I have to stress about (paying for college, single parenting, impending death).
I have finally, finally, finally, found my cause.
We NEED another punctuation mark.
Here’s the thing. In 1994, it would never have occurred to me to use an exclamation point in an email. Wait…there was no email. Or at least the kind of email that has now pervaded all forms of human communication, business or otherwise. I would have been sending a letter then, right? And three-to-five days later, Sarah-circa-1994 would have received this (on letterhead with a logo and address):
Dear Mrs. Connelly,
It was a pleasure to speak with you today, and I look forward to working with your associates in their professional development training. As we discussed, we will present a program in which we provide individual feedback to each seminar participant. Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Very truly yours,
Lisa Freudenheim, Esq.
Since the advent of technology-driven business casual, our world has changed. We have options. We can shoot off an email – or a text – or even send a form of written communication. For some, this is freedom. For me, I am unmoored.
It has taken me literal (and I use the term literally) years to accept the vacuum created by progress in our own perfect English language. Not to be greedy, but we were gifted with so many forms of punctuation: the patient comma, the commanding period, the devil-may-care exclamation point, the versatile dash, the expectant colon. But let’s face it, 2019. We are outmatched, and it’s time to step up.
The next time I write to Sarah (a real person, for whom I have immense business respect and also personal admiration), I want more options. I want some form of punctuation that reflects this feeling: business enthusiasm, with a sprinkle of warmth.
Hold on, naysayers and purists. I am not being lazy. Yes, I know my words should carry my message, but with all due respect, I would also suggest that our world is complicated. And we are tasked, daily, with decoding content, meaning, and tone. So why not make things easier?
I am not a “creative.” In earnest, I am not sure what this new punctuation mark actually looks like. But I am deeply confident that there’s a world out there that can rise to the challenge. It’s a brave new world, and I’m throwing down the gauntlet, Millennials and Gen Z’ers [note the comfortable use of contractions]. Maybe this is the tie that binds…that perfect intersection of respect for tradition with the embracing of the new. Surely, where we can now create emojis that look like ourselves, doing a variety of activities while celebrating holidays with a range of feelings, we can add one more small – but meaningful – punctuation mark to our repertoire.
But for now, as someone who opted for that hot pink mock turtleneck on casual Friday …. peace out!
Lisa Freudenheim is a law professor and founder of Legal Writing Consultants, a professional writing coaching firm working with individuals and companies nationwide. After turning 50, she decided to make time for writing about things that mattered deeply to her, like her two boys, her love of the water, and punctuation.