I’ve a thing with punctuation. I can’t date a man who doesn’t know how to identify an em dash from a hyphen. I’ve an affinity for exclamation points because lowly periods following enthusiasm instill me with social anxiety. Semicolons properly executed with two complete clauses fulfil me more than stuffed crust pizza. And statements freighted with trailing question marks are rather nausea inducing.
But I’ve recently learned that my own punctuation choices in emails are perhaps setting the precedent for my conversations — and not always in my favor. While traveling with a photographer, collaborating with hostels and hotels, we’ve discovered that her emails receive more cooperative, compliant, friendly and frequent responses than mine. One client actually stopped responding to me entirely and still responds to her emails — but we’re working on the same project. The difference, we’ve concluded: She’s grounded and I’m somewhere in la la land.
“I will send you 10 photos,” she states, firmly. Meanwhile, I’m effusively typing away, “Great! Does one blog post and a TripAdvisor review sound good to you?” I’m not even sure why I ask — that’s always the deal unless otherwise specified.
Some recent interactions have me thinking a lot about how much I just love exclamation points! And how uncertain I sort of somewhat maybe sound in my emails. I make myself come across as an overeager pushover (I’m not), and I’m potentially losing credibility because of it.
While putting periods in place of exclamation points pains me at points (I also have a thing for alliteration — it’s unintentional, I swear), I’ve been working on it. And I’ve also been mulling over my evidently questionable email punctuation choices in general. So after taking a deep dive into some cringe-worthy reviews of my own email exchanges, I’ve decided how I’ll try to use punctuation going forward and why. And you may want to consider these guidelines, too.
Periods: They set the tone that you mean business. Periods take precedence over exclamation points. They’re simply the most benign punctuation option. They’re also definitive and clear, which is how I’d like my professional emails to read.
Exclamation Points: They set the precedence that you’re either not being genuine or just overeager. Unless I’m wishing someone happy holidays or a happy birthday, I’m going to strive to steer clear of exclamation points. Women are too often afraid of coming across as “bossy” if they don’t go out of their way to be the smiling suckers we’re socialized to be, but I want to be a boss — so, so be it.
Ellipses: I don’t see a real need for the ellipses in most email conversations — besides, they usually imply incomplete thoughts. Emails should have complete thoughts and, if a thought isn’t yet complete, perhaps that email shouldn’t yet be sent.
Question Marks: I vow never to use a question mark unless I am, indeed, asking a question. A legitimate question to which I don’t already know the answer. And a question that doesn’t give someone else the ability to walk all over me, like the aforementioned one.
Parentheses: The way I see it, there’s always a way to avoid parentheses. They break up thoughts and, therefore, generally make sentences harder to read. Emails should be easy to follow — I don’t want to give anyone the idea that I’m all over the place.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.