Katherine, a reader, sent me an excellent example of the confusion that can result from messages that are stingy with words and punctuation. Katherine saw this handwritten advertisement on a bulletin board:
Looking for a good, responsible babysitter. Call Jane.
Underneath the announcement were small slices of paper, each with Jane's phone number, for people to tear off.
Is Jane a responsible babysitter looking for work? Or is she a parent in search of a sitter?
Katherine described the confusion: "The punctuation suggested that she was looking for a babysitter, but the nature of the sheet with tear-off slips and the fact that most advertisements of this sort are for people trying to find work as a babysitter led me to believe that perhaps it was a punctuation error."
These two revised signs clarify the situation:
Looking for a good, responsible babysitter? Call Jane.
If you are a good, responsible babysitter, call Jane.
You might wisely argue that neither version says enough. What about the hours, days of the week, number of children, geographical location, or other details? But in both versions at least we can tell whether Jane is seeking work or seeking a babysitter.
Do you have an example of business writing that confuses by saying too little? Please share it, as Katherine did. Thanks, Katherine!