School-children may get asked grammar questions like this:

Is this punctuated correctly? “Aslam’s home was broken into by thieves. When, he was away in Lahore on business”

On the whole, not!

It depends what you mean by ‘correctly’, and that depends on what EXACTLY you want to say.

Punctuation is about using lines and dots on a written page to help convey nuances of tone and emphasis that come and go without thinking when we’re speaking.

Look at the differences in meaning here:

Aslam’s home was broken into by thieves when he was away in Lahore on business.

Aslam’s home was broken into? By thieves? When? He was away in Lahore on business!

Aslam’s home was broken into by thieves! When he was away in Lahore! On business!

Aslam’s home was broken into by thieves! When he was away! In Lahore? On business?

And so on.

Read the chapter of my book on Punctuation and Speechwriting:

Look at this simple sentence: I think you are wrong.

There are many different ways in which that can be said, and verbs can be added to make that clear (“he jeered,” “he sneered,” “she exclaimed,” “she wept,” and so on).

The sentence on its own can be cast on the written page in five ways using one of the usual forms of typographic emphasis, thereby helping convey the meaning of the leader saying the words:

  • think you are wrong     (others may think you are right, but I disagree)
  • think you are wrong    (I’m not quite sure about it)
  • I think you are wrong    (others (perhaps) aren’t wrong)
  • I think you are wrong    (you’ve been denying it, but I insist that you are wrong)
  • I think you are wrong   (I want to stress your wrongness in this case)

These can be combined:

think you are wrong (I am getting really annoyed! Back off!)

Note too that when you’re drafting a speech you have to think very hard about how the words on the page help the speaker give emphasis and tone.

Look at this typical UN-type speech text. It’s written in dull earnest nothing sentences.

MDGs after 2015: Looking Behind; Looking Ahead

The UN Office for Partnerships is very happy to be a part of the Youth Assembly. It is a great forum for youth from all over the world to meet and discuss specific ways they can make the world a better place.

It is my honor to introduce the conversation that will look at the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals. 2015 is a big year for the UN. It is a year of transition and renewal, but also one of reflection.

The Millennium Development Goals or MDGs were an unprecedented and ambitious push to reduce poverty and address other key development challenges. Over the years, the MDGs have rallied the international community like never before and continually pushed us to action.

It’s too late. Everyone has slumped into stupor. Huge theme, dead text.

Try this instead.


Who here’s under 25?

Many of you!

Today we’re doing something important

We’re talking about you. And your lives

You’re 25 today? You’ll be 50 in 2040!

2040 seems like a long way away

But it’s not so long. Only 1300 weeks!

When you have a reunion meeting in 2040 to look back on this event today, what will you be thinking about?

Will you be amazed that back in 2015 you didn’t predict all those wonderful new technologies that changed the lives of billions of people?

That you missed the two huge positive trends that were gathering steam?

That you were too pessimistic?

Or will you look back and say you were stupid – for being so optimistic?

This text has energy. That energy comes from eschewing ‘grammar’ and keeping ‘punctuation’ to a minimum.

QED. Punctuation is all about precision.

Say exactly what you want to say. Then stop.