Corinna Lines | November 1, 2022
Recently we answered an enquiry about using commas in emails — were they needed in greetings and sign-offs? And what authority could the writer refer to when discussing this with colleagues? Here’s what we said.
We’ll call the writer Cara. As soon as she opened our reply, Cara could see our approach:
Ata mārie Cara
Thanks for your enquiry. You can see straight away that we don’t use commas in greetings or sign-offs…
We then addressed her request for a ‘definitive answer’ about this. The difficulty is that language is rarely that prescribed. Here at Write we tend to talk about conventions rather than rules, as language keeps changing — much as we’d love to pin it down.
William Strunk Jr wrote about this idea in his revision of the long-respected book ‘The Elements of Style’:
The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time.
Our focus at Write is always on what works best for the reader. Now that we all read so much on screens, any punctuation that doesn’t help comprehension is visual clutter.
So we recommend using punctuation when it’s needed for the reader to understand what you’ve written. This is not the case with greetings and sign-offs.
We’ve mostly stopped putting full stops on things like ‘Mr’, ‘Dr’, ‘etc’, and at the end of address lines, as the punctuation doesn’t really help anyone. But when I say ‘we’, I’m talking about New Zealand business writing. If you Google the question about punctuation in emails, you’ll see a lot of answers using US conventions, or perhaps some UK practice that may be more formal. And you certainly might expect a more traditional approach from areas like law.
We agree that the formality of the communication may influence your approach.
But we’d also suggest shifting the emphasis from ‘Where should I put commas?’ to ‘What helps the reader understand what I’m writing?’
That may be a good test to help you decide.