Incorrect Punctuation as a Cause of Ambiguity and misunderstanding in Written Communication

Incorrect Punctuation as a Cause of Ambiguity and misunderstanding in Written Communication

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Punctuation is the use of punctuation marks within a written text to enhance its meaning or fluency or to indicate aspect of pronunciation. Punctuation is one of the most important aspects of written communications. In fact, it is the basic features of any written discourse that gives meaning to the written words.

Hence, an error in punctuation can convey a completely different meaning as against the intended one, thereby, making communication incomprehensible and ambiguous. Therefore, it is important in any written discourse for one to know the functions of punctuation marks, their meaning and when to use them in order to provide a good piece of comprehensible written discourse, and more importantly to convey the correct message.

Adekola & Lawal (2017) define punctuation marks as the use of conventional signs and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding of handwritten and printed texts. Punctuation is very important in written texts in order to disambiguate the meaning of sentences.

For Alobo (2008) in Sani (2015), punctuation refers to an aspect of the mechanical skill of writing; any write up that is not properly punctuated is a write off. Punctuation prevents a piece of text from being just a string of words by breaking up the string of words into meaningful units and by making the text more fluent. Basically, punctuation marks can be seen as symbols which are used to separate and join units of language into cohesive text.

Punctuation involves the use of signs or marks to divide writing in sentences, clauses, phrases or into minimum unit of meaning in order to convey ideas or information clearly and accurately (Muhammad et al. 1997). They are essential for dividing up written language into units that convey meaning. The wrong use of them, or failure to use them, will easily lead to misunderstanding. There are lots of punctuation marks commonly used in the English language. They include: full-stop, question mark, exclamation mark, comma, semicolon, colon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, caret, apostrophe, quotation marks and ellipses.

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Incorrect Punctuation as a Cause of Ambiguity and misunderstanding in Written Communication

Over the years, writing system was mostly logographic and syllabic (such as Chinese and Maya scripts) which had no capitalization or punctuation. Nevertheless, some its purposes as long as the writing was restricted or limited to business transactions e.g. writings used for recording business transactions.

However, with the introduction of standard system of punctuation, written discourse came to be seen from a new dimension where rules of punctuation are strictly considered as the basic part of meaning of any written discourse. The introduction of standard system of punctuation is generally attributed to Aldus Manutius and his grandson who popularized the practice of ending sentences with full stop, colon and occasional use of comma and parenthesis.

However, the use of punctuation marks was not standardized until after the invention of printing which indicated the rules of punctuation in writing. Shortly after the invention of printing, punctuation thus, served as a guide in ascribing meaning in written discourse which aids and facilitates comprehension.

Following this invention, punctuation marks over the years have been developed (such as full stop, comma, colon, semi-colon, hyphen, Apostrophe, question marks, exclamation mark, bracket among others) to provide proper expression of meaning in writing and to convey a well comprehensible written discourse. However, up to date, these punctuation marks came to be seen as an aspect that contributed to the meaning of written communication.

Hence, incorrect punctuation may distort or affect meaning in written discourse which creates ambiguity that hinders effective communication in written discourse. Thus, this reveals that punctuation is a basic part of meaning in written communication and its incorrect use will no doubt create ambiguity.

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Therefore, from this theoretical framework, this study examines selected scripts of UG III Students of Modern European Languages and Linguistics of Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto in order to explicate how incorrect punctuation creates ambiguity and misunderstanding in written discourse which hinder effective communication.

Incorrect Punctuation as a Cause of Ambiguity and misunderstanding in Written Communication


 The research is carried out as a result of many inconsistencies of meaning in some selected scripts and writings on the notice boards of the students (UG III in particular) Many at times words and phrases carry double meaning as a result of inappropriate use of punctuation marks. The study therefore selects some scripts to investigate the problem and proffer solution:


 This research aims at examining some documented scripts to provide a comprehensive word list showing how words should be broken according to the most widely held practice, and to depict how it is used in written communication effectively. It also seeks to examine how it has made communication easier among students. The following are the objectives the study sets to achieve:

  1. To find out how punctuation makes communication
  2. To examine how incorrect use of punctuation causes ambiguity
  3. And to examine the effect of ambiguity on written communication.


 This research work is designed for everyone who writes or is connected, however remotely, with the business of putting words on paper. For example, somebody writing a letter to a friend or to the bank manager, or an author of a novel or technical manual.

This research will appeal particularly to those with only a sketchy knowledge of the guidelines on punctuation. And it will also be of value to a busy editor/typesetter who might need a reminder on some of the less common aspects of their subject, and particularly to students to punctuate properly in their written communication without tempering with the meaning of the original sentence.

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Incorrect Punctuation as a Cause of Ambiguity and misunderstanding in Written Communication


This research examines the punctuation in the writings of undergraduate students of English, particularly UG III. However, the research faces a lot of challenges regarding accessibility of the students’ examination scripts and those of test because most at times the papers are not given out. At times students misplace the papers and some do not give out the papers due to their poor performance. The research being an academic assignment has a time limit and lack of enough time for the researchers.


AMBIGUITY: A Statement that may likely take two meanings.

TAUTOLOGY: Unnecessary repetition of words or phrases

INSERTION: Use of punctuation mark inappropriately

PERIOD: Another term from full stop.

CAPITALIZATION: Use of appropriate capital letters in appropriate words

HYPHENATION: Use of Hyphen

OMISSION: Act of omitting punctuation in a written discourse.

Incorrect Punctuation as a Cause of Ambiguity and misunderstanding in Written Communication


 In this chapter, general introduction of the research is given. It has been indicated that the research examines the problem in the students’ essays. This is to show that improper use of punctuation marks can hinder effective comprehension and communication in a written discourse. The purpose and significance of the study have been highlighted for easy understanding. All necessary terms used in this research are also defined. In the subsequent chapter, a review of related literature is given.

Mr. Harrison

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