There seems to be a special day honoring just about anything and everything these days, and to my surprise – and probably yours as well – one falls on this very day, September 24th. I recently learned of the little known National Punctuation Day and became intrigued.

Punctuation, “Ticks,” and Corporate Investigations

Now you’re probably intrigued as well, wondering what the correlation is between National Punctuation Day and corporate investigations, but, believe it or not, punctuation can sometimes make or break a case, help us find a new asset or business affiliation, or help us identify salient details in a social media post. Many of us, myself included, have a unique grammar or punctuation “tick” – words or punctuation one often uses in a certain way, sometimes incorrectly. Many people don’t notice these ticks or rarely pay attention to them, but in our line of work they can make all the difference.

Solving a Million-Dollar Crime

In one recent case, our team investigated an employee who was suspected of stealing more than $1 million from his company. The fraud was made possible, in part, through the creation of fake vendor invoices that the employee submitted to the company and which the company paid (not realizing for some time that the employee was pocketing the money). The suspect even went to the trouble of creating letterhead for a number of seemingly legitimate companies as part of the scheme. But when doctoring the invoices, the employee’s punctuation tick came out, and over and over again he left the same mistake as his punctuation fingerprint. It was the same punctuation tick he also showed in his everyday writing, so it wasn’t very difficult to make the connection.

A Comma Can Make a Difference

In our line of work as investigators and researchers, the devil is in the details – details that a human might notice even if a computer does not. We find these small details not just in our review and analysis of documents, but in the methodology of our searches. As investigators, we use a variety of search tools, including the behemoths Lexis and Westlaw, but if we don’t search for information the right way – including using the proper punctuation – we might miss something. A colleague recently told me that, by using commas in different ways while searching, she was able to identify an investigation subject’s business affiliation. Punctuation has also come in handy in identifying possible assets owned by a subject – for example, if a company has two variations of its name, such as ABC Company, LLC and ABC Company, L.L.C. (notice the periods in the latter!).

Social Media: The Stickler for Punctuation

Punctuation use in social media can also be very revealing. If you search for information about a particular user or hashtag on Twitter, a period can give you false negative results because Twitter does not recognize periods.  For example, if you wanted to check a subject’s email address, george.washington@gmail.com, and you went to the Twitter account twitter.com/george.washington to check for his page you would find that there is not a profile with that username because there aren’t any profiles with periods.Instead, when searching for a username on Twitter that contains a period, like George.washington, try twitter.com/georgewashington or twitter.com/George_washington because those don’t contain any periods. As with Twitter handles, hashtags do not contain periods or other punctuation. You’ve probably noticed this mistake – someone on Twitter adds a period or apostrophe to a hashtag to make it easier to read or correctly punctuated, but then the hashtag only contains the letters that appear after the # and before the punctuation.  For example, although these tweets read better with periods, they won’t work:

As you can see, proper punctuation isn’t just an important tool in writing. It’s important in investigative work as well. So don’t take those commas, colons, and periods for granted. Paying attention to them just might help solve a crime, resolve a legal matter or reveal the critical information you need to make a key decision. 

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