Incorrect Punctuation, As A Cause Of Ambiguity And Misunderstanding In Written Communication

Project and Seminar Material for English Language

Incorrect Punctuation, As A Cause Of Ambiguity And Misunderstanding In Written Communication


Ambiguity is a linguistic phenomenon in which more than one meaning, or deep structure, may be represented by the same expression, or surface structure; the same word or similar sounding words for example can have multiple meaning. It arises from different sources; phonology, syntax and punctuation. In this task, ambiguity is the preoccupation of this task. It is a point where two sentence overlap with respect to their syntactic category.

Chapter One

1.0 Introduction

Punctuation is one of the major aspects that contribute to meaning of any written discourse. This implies that correct the use of punctuation in written communication enhances meaning and fluency which facilitates comprehension and effective communication.

However, when punctuation marks are used incorrectly, it generally alters meaning and creates ambiguity in written discourse which leads to ineffective communication.

This research is taken to investigate how incorrect punctuation creates ambiguity and misunderstanding in written communication. This will be achieved by examining selected scripts of UG III students of Modern European Languages and Linguistics of Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto, thereby evaluating the causes of ambiguity in the essays with regards to the incorrect use of punctuation.

1.1 Background to the Study

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.

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.

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.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

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:

1.3 Aim and Objectives of the Study

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 effective.
  2. To examine how incorrect use of punctuation causes ambiguity
  3. And to examine the effect of ambiguity on written communication.

1.4 Significance of the Study

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.

1.5 Scope and Limitation

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.

1.6 Definition of the Terms


A Statement that may likely take two meanings.


Unnecessary repetition of words or phrases


Use of punctuation mark inappropriately


Another term from full stop.


Use of appropriate capital letters in appropriate words


Use of Hyphen


Act of omitting punctuation in a written discourse.

1.7 Conclusion

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.

Chapter Five

Summary and Conclusion

5.0 Introduction

This is the final chapter of the research work and also an important one, which deals with summary and conclusion.

5.1 Summary

This research has been able to give a detailed account of punctuation marks, what they are and how students make use of punctuation marks.

It shows how the use of incorrect punctuation marks causes ambiguity and misunderstanding which is an inevitable phenomenon in written communication.

5.2 Conclusion

From the findings of this research work, It clearly shows that the use of punctuation marks makes written communication effective and shows its ambiguity where the punctuation marks are used improperly. It also shows how people use punctuation marks in different ways. Students find it difficult to use punctuation marks properly in written communication.

Often times, when we speak English, we usually utilize prosodic features such as stress, intonation, rhythm etc to make our meaning clear. However, in writing, of the function, these periodic features in speech are handle by punctuation in writing.

Consequently, written English has developed a conventional system of punctuation which is consistent and sensible: Every punctuation mark has one or more particular functions in accordance to its ascribed functions.

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