by Jennie Ruby
We recently received the following from Midal, a Skills & Drills reader: "[In Captivate caption boxes,] is it necessary to include periods at the end of every sentence in a text caption even if it is as simple as "Click Submit"? I have been leaving out periods (but using commas and ellipsis), but our Editor mentioned that the text in caption boxes should always have periods at the end since the sentences are complete."
Should a short, one-sentence caption have a period at the end? Midal's editor says that the captions should have periods because they include complete sentences. Our editor/writer here at IconLogic says that it is a matter of taste. Is there a correct answer to this question?
The trouble is that this question lies outside of the rules of pure grammar. If you consult a grammar book, you will get the clear answer that a sentence should end with a period (or other closing punctuation mark). But the rules of grammar are meant for use in running text, like the text in a novel or a business letter. Once you enter the realm of displayed text, such as the text in Captivate text captions, or bulleted or numbered lists, or step-by-step instructions, you must consider both grammar and style. As our editor here at IconLogic implies, that makes the periods at the end of captions optional.
How then should we make the decision on whether to put the commas in or not? We can consult tradition, grammar, visual aesthetics and the intent of the communication. We already know that grammar tells us to put periods at the ends of sentences. Older, more traditional or formal, editorial styles call for treating displayed text the same way you would treat running text. The opinion runs along the lines of "That is a sentence, and regardless of whether it is in text or displayed as a caption, as a list item, or as an item in a list of instructions, it should still be punctuated as a sentence."
This tells us that if you are creating training in a more formal and traditional field, such as perhaps legal writing, or literature or another academic field, you should probably go with the traditional punctuation. Your readers will expect that.
But if you are not writing within one of those fields, then you may want to give more weight to considerations such as visual aesthetics. Generally a cleaner and more sparse design sense is valued in displayed text. For example, a bulleted list on a crowded web page looks cleaner and simpler without periods at the ends of the items, and a quick survey of websites reveals that lists on the Internet are typically done with no periods.
Modern print publishing styles also tend to omit periods, or any punctuation, from the ends of items in bulleted or numbered lists. The bullets themselves, plus the fact that each item is on a new line, tell the reader that each item is a complete thought or sentence.
In printed training books, our style here at IconLogic is to omit periods at the ends of individual commands in bulleted lists, simply to limit visual clutter. The idea is that less is more. In those list items, the fact that there is a bullet and the fact that the command is on a separate line from the other commands serve as enough signals to tell the reader that it is a unit of meaning. Adding the period would be redundant.
Having considered all of these situations, my opinion is that periods should be omitted from Captivate captions containing only one sentence. The fact that the text is in a visual bubble and the fact that there is typically just one command per bubble are two cues to the reader that the bubble contains one complete thought. Adding a period is a little redundant. Add to that the fact that the intent of the communication is to quickly and succinctly get across to the reader that he or she should click one thing, and I am solidly for omitting the periods.
That is my opinion, but when you add up the various factors of audience, topic, intention, and aesthetics, you may end up with the opposite opinion. What do you do in your writing? We would love to hear from you.
Are you an eLearning developer who has been tasked with creating an effective voiceover script? If so, consider attending Jennie's Writing Effective eLearning Voiceover Scripts class. Jennie also teaches the Writing Training Documents and eLearning Scripts and the Complete Review of Grammar class.
About the Author: Jennie Ruby is a veteran IconLogic trainer and author with titles such as "Editing with Word 2003 and Acrobat 7" and "Editing with MS Word 2007" to her credit. She is a publishing professional with more than 20 years of experience in writing, editing and desktop publishing.