Punctuation as Decoration

By Stacey
Jan 11, 2013 · 2 min

An aspect of translation work that never seems to get any focus is punctuation.

punctuation as decoration

Follow the Guide

Most translation services with large companies or organisations will come with a Style Guide, which lays out the ways the organisation wants language to be handled. This will define things like spelling conventions, how to handle abbreviations, and comma usage (personally, I think the uproar over comma usage is ridiculous – while too many commas are a bad thing, since each comma, forces you, to pause slightly, even when reading, silently) as long as you are conservative with your commas there is literally no right or wrong way. The Oxford comma or the journalist comma are just as readable, so what else matters?

In the absence of a guide, there are general references you can follow as a fall-back position, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the AMA. In other words, even when performing a high quality translation, punctuation can be handled very simply and need not be the Wild West.


The real trouble comes when people abuse punctuation on purpose and use it as decoration. There are two ways that punctuation is used as decoration: One is when inappropriate punctuation marks are used simply to highlight words or phrases for the eye, and one when advertising or marketing use it to make a logo or company name more eye-catching. We’re seeing more and more of the latter in the digital age; it’s an old convention of ‘hackers’ and computer programmers to play with spelling and punctuation in words, and as that subculture floats upwards into the limelight advertisers and marketing departments are including these ideas in their branding.

One of the most common punctuation-as-decoration offences involves what are called air quote (or scare quotes). In the paragraph above I put the word hackers into scare quotes to indicate that it was an unofficial and denied term (hackers often refuse to call themselves by this term). Often when home-made signs are created, people will use scare quotes inappropriately just to emphasise a word. This is often because other modes of textual emphasis such as italics or bold are not easily rendered by hand.

In the marketing world, consider a company like Guess? Jeans. The question mark here is clearly just a decoration – and a nightmare for copy editors! It does, however, serve the purpose of making their logo and company name quite distinctive and memorable.

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