Punctuation Matters: Advice on punctuation for scientific and technical writing
by John Kirkman (Routledge, 4th edition 2006): 144pp, £14.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 415 39982 1.
Reviewed by Melanie Thompson
This book is marketed as an 'essential guide for everyone who has to write in scientific, technical and medical contexts, with clear explanations on punctuation, what it does and how to use it'.
More suitable for writers
I bought John Kirkman's book in its previous incarnation – Full Marks (2nd edition), published by Ramsbury Books in 1993 – after hearing him speak as a guest lecturer on a science communication course I was taking. He was an entertaining speaker and, at the time, I found his book to be clear, easy to use and helpful. What I didn't fully appreciate back then – even though the clue is in the title – is that this book is much more suitable for writers than editors.
The main difference between this fourth edition and the previous ones is that the bibliography, and therefore the sources cited in the text, has been updated. Overall, the structure of this edition (published in 2006) is the same as before, with the text divided into three parts – 'Policy', 'Guidelines' and 'Appendices' – with 'Guidelines' definitely functioning as the meat in the sandwich. There, John Kirkman addresses each punctuation mark in turn, giving examples of what he considers to be correct and incorrect usage.
The author's opinion
Therein lies my difficulty with this book, from an editor's point of view. A lot of the advice is based on the author's opinion or experience, sometimes but not always backed up by citations from key reference works. This style can be refreshing, and the 'real life' examples are useful, especially for scientists who find themselves having to write and not having time to get to grips with the niceties of English grammar.
But for an editor in search of a definitive answer, it can be frustrating and in too many places reads a little like a discussion on SfEPLine, where people's comments are of the form 'X says A' and 'Y says B', and the poor editor is still left feeling flummoxed.
If you enjoy such shenanigans, I commend the book to you. You'll enjoy alternately agreeing or disagreeing with the author as you flick through the pages. If, on the other hand, you're a busy editor in need of an authoritative answer, you may prefer to stick with the better-known reference books.
I should add, however, that if you don't usually get involved in texts that are in American English, you might find useful the third appendix – 'Differences in punctuation in American English and British English' – as a quick way to double-check whether the usage you're presented with is suitable (so that you can go off and check in a more detailed reference work).