I have a confession: there are few things that trouble my soul more than 1.) bent fork prongs and 2.) brand copywriting fails. (I’ve been this way all my life—blame my parents.) But thanks to the foresight of the extraordinarily talented Kathryn LeMieux, I have been given a sobering Ghost-of-Christmas-Future-esque peek into my later years…and the scene isn’t pretty, folks. Observe:
Much like my miserly counterpart from the Dickens classic, this experience inspired me to exchange angry typo-lambasting mutterings for a commitment to instead share the wealth, so to speak, in this blog series on common copywriting errors. Faulkner I am not, but I have learned a few things through many an impassioned Oxford comma debate (more on that later). As you compose compelling copy for your brand, keep the following in mind:
Forget *Some* of the Things You Learned in English Class
Many people were taught to place a comma “anywhere you might take a breath” in a sentence. That works in some cases (i.e. to separate two independent clauses devoid of a coordinating conjunction), but infrequently in marketing beyond that. If we’re writing a piece of fiction, that’s often perfectly acceptable: in this case, we may want the reader to “hear” the stylistic inconsistencies present in unique character speech patterns.
…but I promise, AndNowUKnow doesn’t want your press releases to read like casual conversation with your overly excitable Aunt Betty and Uncle George. Some common offenses:
A comma splice occurs when a comma is used to separate two clauses (without a connecting conjunction) that could be stand-alone sentences. If you are “writing like you talk,” this might occur when the speaker is especially excited, agitated, or frightened. For example:
- Example: “I love writing, in fact I am a grammar expert, I really am the best writer I know, but I still can’t believe I got my dream writing job!”
- Solution: split into separate sentences, include a semi-colon, or add a conjunction. “I love writing; in fact, I am a grammar expert. I really am the best writer I know, but I still can’t believe I got my dream writing job!”
Commas After The Word “But”
- Example: “I’d love to go but, well I just can’t.”
- Solution: Always place the comma before the conjunction, but (see what I did there?) if the reader must pause after the conjunction for effect, include an ellipsis (i.e. “…”). That sentence should be, “I’d love to go, but…well, I just can’t.”
Omitting Commas That Are Necessary for Clarity
‘nough said. Just don’t, y’all.
…But Definitely Remember Other Lessons.
Commas, colons, semi-colons, hyphens, em dashes, parentheses…it’s no wonder there is so much confusion around how, when, and where to use different types of punctuation! Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
- Commas are incredibly versatile, though they are most often used in lists and to separate two or more clauses in a complex sentence.
- “I was going to eat the entire head of broccoli by myself, but then I got full.”
- Many writers have a hard time grasping proper use of the colon and semicolon. Here’s an easy way to distinguish which is appropriate when, thanks to The Punctuation Guide: “The colon and the semicolon can both be used to connect two independent clauses. When the second clause expands on or explains the first, use a colon. When the clauses are merely related, but the second does not follow from the first, use a semicolon.”
- Colon: “He didn’t go to the fields today: it was just too hot.”
- Semi-colon: “He didn’t go to the fields today; he did, however, go to the grocery store.”
- (Editor’s note: my trick is to insert the word “because” where the colon might go. If it makes sense, use a colon. If not, use a semi-colon.)
- Hyphens connect compound words, including nouns (mother-in-law) and multiple words that collectively serve as an adjective that modifies a noun (over-the-top event). Typically, if a compound adjective appears before the noun, it is hyphenated. One exception to keep in mind: if the first word in the compound is an adverb ending in –ly (overly angry walrus), you will omit the hyphen.
- An em dash sets off specific dependent or independent clauses in a sentence—either in the middle (like so) or at the end—and can sometimes take the place of a set of commas or parentheses or an ellipsis, colon, or semicolon.
“I also wanted to go that route at first…I just couldn’t do it.”
“I also wanted to go that route at first—I just couldn’t do it.”
“I’ve been this way all my life; blame my parents.”
“I’ve been this way all my life—blame my parents.”
“We stayed there once (a really long time ago) and I can’t wait to go back!"
“We stayed there once—a really long time ago—and I can’t wait to go back!"
- *Bonus* When giving additional context—especially when citing sources or clarifying a point—these are some handy abbreviations to know:
- e.g. = “in other words”
- ex. = “for example”
- et al. = “and others”
The Infamous Oxford Comma Debate
An Oxford comma occurs before a conjunction (typically “and” or “or”) and near the end of a list as a serial comma. (E.g. “Red, blue, green, and yellow” includes an Oxford comma.)
When writing press releases—or anything else in AP Style—you will omit the Oxford comma except when necessary for clarity. What’s most important here is consistency: if your brand has decided not to use the Oxford comma, stick to that. Otherwise, omission begins to look like a typo rather than a simple stylistic choice.
Have any lingering punctuation queries—or long-standing pet peeves—we didn’t address? Let us know in the comments!
Stay tuned for the next piece in this series: Common Copywriting Mistakes Marketers Make, Part 2: Grammar Goofs!