Radiograms and Punctuation

The subject of using punctuation in a formal radiogram came up on the Ohio Single Sideband Net (OSSBN) a while back. It seems that not everyone understands exactly how to use punctuation in a formal NTS message.

In order to understand why the standard practices in NTS traffic handling are what they are, we need to understand why punctuation is used in the first place. Punctuation marks are used in written language in order to communicate certain qualities or nuances of the ideas being communicated from the writer to the reader. We use commas as idea separators. We use colons and semi-colons to denote lists. We use the period to separate ideas. We use punctuation to add context to the written word.

Formal message transmission, however, has different requirements than writing prose or poetry. The reason we pass formal message traffic in the NTS is to practice and develop a skill that may be necessary to use in an emergency. Often, this fundamental purpose is pushed to the background while we participate in and enjoy our nets. The primary purpose of formal message traffic is to get the thoughts and ideas accurately, completely, and unambiguously communicated from the sender to the receiver. We must accomplish this despite weak signals, lightning crashes, QRM, and many other distractions.

The next thing we need to consider is the mode of communication and how it affects communication needs. Formal message traffic is passed by CW, voice, and digital modes. I don't participate in digital traffic handling so I won't speak to their specific needs. I do participate in CW and voice nets at all levels of the NTS, from local to area nets, so I can speak to these from experience.

In the past, message traffic and news was passed from shore stations to ships at sea by means of the Morse code (CW). These communications required that the most commonly used punctuation be used so Morse code signals exist for many punctuation marks. The code 'dah dah dah di di dit' is the code for a colon. The code 'dah di di di di dah' is an apostrophe.

In normal, every day CW conversations on the ham bands, CW ops rarely use punctuation other than period (di dah di dah di dah) and comma (dah dah di di dah dah) and slash (dah di di dah dit). We also use the equal sign (dah di di di dah) but most CW operators know it as the prosign BT. Also, in the days when hams were tested on CW, all the punctuation we had to know to pass the test were period, comma, and slant bar. The result of all this is that most CW ops do not know all the Morse code for punctuation symbols.

Voice communications is fundamentally different than CW communications. In voice communications, we can display nuance and context by changes in tone or by pausing for different amounts of time. Voice communicators don't have the problem of learning punctuation codes like CW ops have.

If we look at the goal of NTS communications, that is, to communicate accurately, completely, and unambiguously, we need to eliminate things that get in the way and make our communication less prone to error. In the case of punctuation, the easiest way is to just not use the many punctuation marks in our messages and to not use any punctuation at all if we don't absolutely need it. This is, essentially what the NTS recommends in their Message and Practices Guidelines (MPG) in appendix B to the Public Service Communications Manual (PSCM).

The MPG chapter that deals with the formal radiogram is chapter 1. This chapter gives specific instructions on what is, and is not, permissible in a radiogram.

The following is from the PSCM, Appendix B, Chapter 1:

1.2.6 PUNCTUATION It may seem that punctuation rules are complicated, but the basic rule is that no punctuation such as hyphens, commas, colons, periods, etc., are ever permitted anywhere in the Radiogram as symbols. Only capital letters, figures, and slashes are permitted. The substitutes “R”, “X”, and “DOT”, or spelled-out punctuation, are used in OP NOTES and the TEXT as noted. Even though the slash (“/”) is a permitted character in the radiogram, it should be avoided in the Preamble, Address, and Signature except slashes (“/”) after call signs in the Preamble, or slashes after call signs in the addressee line, or slashes separating characters in street addresses where normally required for postal use, or the slash in the group “C/O”.
You may use punctuation in the text part of a message or in an op note if needed to make the message text clearly understood. Any punctuation that is correct but not necessary should be avoided.

The slant bar ('/') is specifically allowed in a formal radiogram as mentioned above. This is easily handled in CW as all CW ops should know the code. In a voice net, it is voiced as 'slash', 'stroke', or 'slant bar'.

In the text part of a radiogram, there are specific substitutions made for common punctuation. We use the capital letter 'R' as a substitution for the decimal point in a decimal fraction. If we want to say our temperature is 98.6F, we would use '98R6F'. In a voice net, we would read it as "mixed group niner eight romeo six foxtrot". We also substitute the letter X for a period to end a sentence. It is voiced as "initial x-ray" on a voice net.

Any other punctuation must be spelled out as a word. For example, my email address would be "WB8YLO ATSIGN ARRL DOT NET" rather than "". Spelled out punctuation is counted as one group just like any other group in the message.

The bottom line is to use punctuation rarely and only if necessary to properly communicate the information. If you must use punctuation, don't use the symbols (except the '/') but, use the word spelled out.

All of this information (and much more) is available in the MPGs on the ARRL web site here. The PSCM and MPGs have recently been updated. I highly recommend all traffic handlers take a look at the new material.

Posted: August 18, 2015

Last Update: July 19, 2023