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Punctuating a Restaurant Menu

Chris wrote me about the menu at Cliff’s Grill in Houston. He wants to make sure the punctuation is correct and sent me a brief description of the patty melt burger. Here it is:

Patty Melt
Beef patty, grilled onions and Swiss cheese, served on grilled rye bread

Chris had second thoughts about the comma before the word served. He wondered whether it should be a dash, like this:

Patty Melt
Beef patty, grilled onions and Swiss cheese–served on grilled rye bread

What do you think? Comma, dash, or no punctuation before served?

punctuating a restaurant menu

The current Cliff’s Grill menu uses a comma, and I agree with it. The dash feels too abrupt. It feels like an elbow to the rib, saying, “Hey, this burger comes on grilled rye bread!” Menus need delicious, smooth descriptions–not efficient, sharp-edged blurbs.

Yes, punctuation creates pace and feelings: smooth, slow, careening, jarring, gentle. I am thinking of the wonderful punctuation story recounted in Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It seems that writer James Thurber was questioned about the comma in this sentence: “After dinner, the men went into the living room.” He defended the comma and his New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, like this: “This particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand.”

I applaud Chris for wanting to get that menu punctuation correct. If he keeps it correct and consistent, he will avoid causing indigestion in any former and current English teachers who might have their hearts set on a nicely punctuated Patty Melt or a correctly spelled Turkey Reuben (yes, Reuben is spelled with an eu). And after a good meal, as Thurber would have it, everyone will get up from the table, satisfied with the menu in more ways than one.

Good luck, Chris. You are facing a noble challenge.


Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

5 comments on “Punctuating a Restaurant Menu”

  • I would make other changes. He uses the word “grilled” and “patty” twice. In the series, I would also move that word “grilled” to the end if I was keeping all three elements–it is not really a parallel word within the series. How about this:

    Patty Melt
    A hamburger with Swiss cheese and grilled onions all served on toasted rye bread.

  • My comments are somewhat off-topic, but I’m fascinated by Lynn’s use of the following phrase and its history in American English:

    “Chris wrote me about the menu at Cliff’s Grill in Houston.”

    On this side of the Atlantic, we would expect “Chris wrote to me about the menu at Cliff’s Grill in Houston.”

    Instead, “Chris wrote me…” would be used in the context of “Chris wrote me a letter” or “Chris wrote me a poem about flowers.”

  • Mike, I like your version. I don’t think it’s the same lunch though. Chris’s is on grilled bread; yours is toasted. Chris’s is a BEEF patty; yours is a BURGER. (Could there be a difference?) If we were editing or proofreading the menu for Chris, we would have to be sure we didn’t upset the chef!

    Thanks for commenting.

  • Stuart, thank you for pointing out the “wrote me” distinction between British and American English. “Wrote to me” is also correct in the U.S. That’s why I have been searching my reference books to find any comments on my use of “wrote me,” but I have had no luck. You have me wondering whether the form I used is rather informal.

    However, now that I am aware that “to me” is expected in Britain, I will be more conscious of including the preposition “to” for an international audience.

    If you have any new insights, please write TO me about them!


  • Prepositions have it tough in the US, it seems

    “Chris wrote to me on Tuesday”

    becomes the more abrupt…

    “Chris wrote me Tuesday” on the other side of the pond. Reading an American newspaper, it often seems that half the words are missing…

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