Scholars are taught about the importance of choosing the right words in their text very early in their careers. If they don’t learn it ahead of time, they learn it the hard way, but it’s the knowledge that is quickly imparted and a lesson learned that stays relevant through every academic paper they write. But what about the importance of misused punctuation?
There are many jokes regarding the improper use of commas, like this one: I was walking past a farm and a sign said, “Duck, eggs.” I thought, “That’s an unnecessary comma…” – and then it hit me.
The jokes help to reinforce the need for correct commas, but they are by far not the only incorrectly used punctuation in the text. Through the study of signs and symbols, semiotics shows us that the wrong punctuation and mechanics can be just as dangerous to the content we are trying to relay. By studying the basics of semiotics, you can ensure you use the correct signs and symbols in your technical writing.
What is Semiotics?
The study of words can be broken down into multiple sections of etymology. But the study of symbols, signs, and their meanings in society, otherwise known as semiotics, isn’t quite as prevalent. Still, it serves a major purpose for any writer to learn the basics of this field.
Signs are, by definition, anything that stands for something else to convey meaning. This meaning can be portrayed through drawings, photographs, 3D images, models, or anything visual.
Signs can be culturally considered one thing and totally different somewhere else. For instance, the sign of a Prada handbag would mean high-society in one place and not another. Because of this, they can function within multiple systems to be used as a tool for communication.
What Happens When Symbols Go Wrong?
Signs and symbols are used as codes to communicate an idea to the reader. How they are perceived, though, can be different depending on the context of the environment the sign is in. An “X,” for instance, could be multiple different things: a railroad crossing warning, a symbol denoting the location of something, an instruction to multiple, a symbol of affection, and so much more.
When the reader is deconstructing the symbol you use in your text, if you haven’t fully created the right ‘environment’ around it to get your point across, it can be taken out of context. You have to compose your article so that any signs and symbols you use encompass the reader’s prior experiences and knowledge so that they can deconstruct and ‘read’ the signs correctly to decipher the message you are trying to transmit.
Commonly Mistaken Signs in Scientific Writing
It may not be a big deal to you, but it could be huge to your readers, and that makes it something that should be important on your end. These mistakes in sign usage in scientific writing can completely throw off your content translation:
● The hyphen (-), en-dash (–), and em-dash (—): Most writers will use these symbols interchangeably, but they are anything but. Hyphens are solely used to connect compound words and to portray the mathematical negative symbol. The en-dash is used where the word “to” is omitted, and the em-dash replaces a comma to offset a phrase or part of a sentence.
● Splitting up numbers and units with a hyphen: Yes, you can use a hyphen to connect these compounds, but only when you’re talking about measurements that are being used to modify the noun and connect it to a spelled out unit. During that time, there should be no spaces (8-ounces).
● Replacing a unit of measurement with its symbol: You may want to get in-depth with your research and go for the scientific symbol for the unit of measurement you’re using. This is typically related to a Greek alphabet sign or diacritical mark, but you can use a Roman alphabet symbol that is similar if your computer program doesn’t have the actual sign in their Character Map. Be sure you use the right symbol so as not to inadvertently plug in an entirely different equation to your text.
Signs and symbols are not always universal, even if they seem like common sense to you. Before you submit your article, double-check every non-text character you use to make sure that you’re actually saying what you wanted to say.