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Punctuation in business

Waterstones has a new owner. This is not news. What is news is how we know.

Daily despatches from the frontline of the high street are hard to avoid, but for the visible, definitive evidence, we’re off to Piccadilly via the US, a baseball diamond, and a boardroom where an unexpected character enjoys a moment in the sun.

At the launch of the Waterstones 11 in London, where the bookshop’s seers announced their pick of debut novels for 2012, Chad Harbach was asked to dwell briefly on the removal of Waterstone’s’ apostrophe. (Chad is pretty big news himself; his first published book, The Art of Fielding, is where the Great American Novel went next and it comes trailing glory, headlines and global acclaim. No knowledge of baseball required, though a passing familiarity won’t hurt).

It’s a fair bet that the question came at Chad from – well, from left field. This is Waterstones, its fate a decidedly local question that won’t have made much of a ripple across the pond, much less its lately retired apostrophe. Still, the question was asked and gracefully fielded.

I like it, Harbach finally decided. There’s altogether too much punctuation in the world.

Nothing like a pronouncement of this sort, even when its tongue is lodged firmly in its cheek, to make a writer sit up and take note. Punctuation makes news? That doesn’t happen every day. If writers and editors everywhere aren’t all over this like ten men, they’ll be along soon. We’ll spend all day tackling a hyphen glut, trading polite blows on the commodities floor where fluctuations in the fortunes of em and en dashes can fill a comment thread in no time. And while it’s only the most radicalised reader who’ll pick a fight with a semicolon, millions of bookshelves prop up a bestseller that starts with the correct placing of a comma.

Punctuation is silent. It goes about its work almost invisibly, working its trinket bellows to puff a breath of air into a sentence here, helpfully snipping at the tripwire of ambiguity there, inflecting, indenting, simplifying and sifting. It doesn’t often find itself in the news, nor is it much to be found at the boardroom table, freighted with significance and messages from the world of commerce, speaking for itself.

And what it said, when asked, was this: Waterstones has changed hands. The world should know. Tim Waterstone’s bookshop is Tim’s no more.

It’s quite a mouthful for a little curl of ink.

There’s some admittedly limited fun to be had with this for the wayward word wrangler with ten minutes to spare, but it’s still a diverting thought. Altogether too much punctuation in the world? It’s how we spend it that matters.

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One Response to "Punctuation in business"

  1. Jean McNeil says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. It is extremely well written and with perfect punctuation. I totally agree that it is how you use it that’s important. The average school leaver has little knowledge of English let alone punctuation and texting is adding to the problem. I know I am not an expert and frequently check my use of grammar and my spelling. Why? Because the reader is worth it.

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