Practical tools for improving text flow: focus on punctuation


Thomas O'Boyle,

Friday, 26 October 2007
9:15 - 12:30 h
Real Jardín Botánico/CSIC, Plaza de Murillo 2, Madrid, Spain

The basic syntax is sound. The terminology is correct. Overall, the text is coherent. But, for some reason it still doesn't flow. It's time to do a punctuation check. This workshop looks at punctuation as a tool that removes ambiguity, provides balance, and improves flow. The emphasis is on using these syntactic signposts to solve dilemmas raised by poor punctuation and provide clear, reader-friendly texts.

Writers—and the editors who review their texts—can't afford to assume that readers will fix unsystematic punctuation instinctively. If punctuation provides 'traffic signs' that help readers travel from one thought to the next, decisions about placement are surely not based on whim and a given speaker's sense of rhythm. The workshop will introduce a decision-making hierarchy to enable participants to make logical, efficient decisions depending on whether texts are for publication or for personal expression.

Purpose | Description | Structure | Who should attend? | Outcome skills
Pre-meeting information | About the facilitator



To create awareness of the role of punctuation in improving flow. To learn a new approach to improving cohesion in complex texts. To use a hierarchical decision-making process that allows editors to prepare texts for publication. To gain insight into the variety of editing solutions that can fix problematic prose.


This workshop starts with a look at punctuation as a key element in providing clear, readable texts. We’ll show the syntactic basis for English punctuation, work our way logically through text examples muddled by unhelpful punctuation, and point you toward the best style guides and similar publications. We will briefly review the syntax-based punctuation rules of English—including a look at em- and en-dashes vs hyphens—and point you toward good references for modern rules. We’ll examine some syntax–punctuation mismatches that arise often in translated or Spanish-authored texts and show how the rules clarify and solve the problems.


The workshop will be divided into three sections. A first part will present a few authentic examples of text made difficult to understand because of poorly managed punctuation. Then tasks that focus on new information will let us work through a hierarchy that lets us see punctuation in a syntactical light. Finally, we’ll work with hardcopy together to solve a variety of punctuation problems, some mixed with other distracting problems that can make it hard to focus on detail.

Who should attend?

Editors and translators at any level can benefit from the exchange of knowledge in this session. Medical and scientific editors or translators will be interested because many—not all—of our examples come from such technical texts.

Outcome skills

Participants will be able to recognize good use and poor use of common punctuation marks and explain the reasons for their evaluation. The workshop will increase participants’ confidence when taking decisions to prepare a text for publication quickly.

Pre-meeting information

Punctuation can fascinate

Are you familiar with Lynn Truss’s best-selling book on punctuation? If not, click the link to enjoy a hilarious excerpt from Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Try Truss’s punctuation game at You may not agree with all the answers—we don’t—but it’s fun and it starts you thinking about why and how you do or don’t use a punctuation mark.

The following references may also be of interest:

Stephen de Looze. “Slash the Slash—or, The Art of Not Being Oblique”. The Write Stuff.

About the facilitator

Thomas O'Boyle is a freelance translator, editor and language facilitator based in Madrid. His MA, from University of Salford, is in Translating and Interpreting.