HummerBeadsA broken car journey, a neglected book and a bit of discourse analysis all came together this week. Perhaps I can open your eyes to the importance of some rather special tiny pixels.

A while ago I purchased two books: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Curiously these two little gems have remained at the bottom of my “to read” pile for a while. OK, they have sat there for a very very long while. I pick them up, groan, then put them straight back down. I have bad memories of grammar lessons from school. Just looking at the books brought those memories back vividly.

This week things changed. I got stuck on the M25 for several hours. Not for the first time this month, I might add. As I sat there, engine off, freezing cold, I fought to make some productive use of the time. My laptop wasn’t by my side, so after I had made all the phone calls I could, I scanned around the interior of my trusty transport to find something else to do. Apart from some old food wrappers, the only thing there was a copy of The Elements of Style. I started to read. Once I’d read all of the food wrappers, it was on to the book. I read, and I read, and I read. Unsurprisingly, for a book on writing, it is brilliantly written. It has helped me to better understand some of those funny symbols on my keyboard. You know, the ones that only take a few pixels.

A bit of punctuation can be a great productivity boost, turbo charging your communication skills. Modern communications mediums have some funny effects on punctuation. Punctuation is a critical tool for preserving meaning when communications moves from speech to text. It recreates the information that is built into our speech, but lost in the alphabet. Those little typographic symbols attempt to capture some of the information we embed into our speech. We convey lots of meaning by way of pauses, breaths and stops, not to mention intonation and all of the other non-verbal communication. Maybe this is why Seesmic is so popular and Unified Communications is about to take business by storm.

Recently, I had reason to do some discourse analysis. This involves in depth analysis of conversations, taking notated transcriptions, which have the pauses and intonation annotated back into the text. I won’t bore you with what one of these transcripts looks like, but safe to say that a single page of text becomes many, many pages once it is marked up. It is amazing how much we say using non-words.

Instant Messaging, SMS and Blackberries are leading us to produce text completely devoid of useful annotations. If you want to see how much trouble is caused by missing the occasional comma or full-stop, just read the back of Eats Shoots and Leaves. To paraphrase:

A panda walks into a restaurant, sits down and eats a sandwich. It then stands up, pulls out a gun and and fires it into the air. “Why?” says the waiter. The panda says “I’m a panda, look it up” and throws him a poorly punctuated wildlife book. The entry under panda reads “Eats, shoots and leaves.”

A bit of wrong punctuation can obscure the meaning. Some real-time communication technologies implicitly provides that information, like the pauses and line breaks in Instant Messaging. However, for many of these new mediums that isn’t the case. We write conversationally, but the tools don’t capture the subtleties of speech.

A whole team of people were frantically running around in an office I visited recently. They were trying to work out what one of the senior executives meant in an email he had sent from his Blackberry. Eats shoots and leaves, that’s what I say. To use tools productively, as technologists and users, we need to learn to write. Starting with punctuation.

Elements of style is a good clear book and easy read, Eats shoots and leaves is even more so. I highly recommend them. I’m still digesting both, and I hope that they will also improve my blog writing!

How’s your punctuation? Have you seen any comma driven technology accidents recently?