Punctuation Matters, Period: A Review of Controversial Punctuation Rules

Good writing matters. It’s that simple. And good writing is especially important for law firms, healthcare organizations, and other businesses trying to increase their clients, consumers, and revenue online.

Your prospects expect excellence, and one way you can prove your worth is by delivering compelling, well-crafted content. If your copy isn’t sharp, accurate, and grammatically correct, consumer trust will evaporate, and your potential customers will take their business to your competitors.

Keep reading to understand a few basic principles of punctuation and how this seemingly minor facet of your writing could go a long way in producing new and better leads as well as loyal clients and customers.

Commas, Spaces, and Apostrophes — Oh, My!

Most people believe they have a good handle on the basic punctuation rules of the English language, but this misplaced confidence often leads to common errors that we see every day in newspapers, advertising materials, and online. We learned many of these simple rules back in grade school, but over time, they faded and were replaced by bad habits that gradually became galvanized in our minds as proper English.

Admittedly, punctuation is not the most interesting aspect of the English language. But punctuation is a crucial element of writing, if only as a tool to clarify meaning.

For example, imagine a sentence from a simple story with no punctuation whatsoever. Here’s an example:

John always one to come up with ingenious ideas put in his two cents to get through a tunnel must be dug

It’s a slog with no punctuation. Of course, with a well-developed understanding of punctuation, it’s not hard to sort out what’s going on:

John, always one to come up with ingenious ideas, put in his two cents: “To get through, a tunnel must be dug.”

It’s certainly possible to read without punctuation, but punctuation helps clarify what’s going on in a sentence quickly and directly. If your clients have to struggle through your more sophisticated marketing materials, they’re not going to fully understand your message. Worse, they’ll stop reading altogether.

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The Oxford Comma: Not as Fancy as It Sounds

The comma is one of the most versatile punctuation marks. Some of its primary functions include setting off nonessential elements in a sentence, separating coordinate adjectives, and delineating different items in a list. (See what I did there?) Some grammarians believe the final comma in a series (known variously as the “Oxford,” “Harvard,” or “serial” comma) is unnecessary. They are wrong.

While many people are unfamiliar with what an Oxford comma is, we encounter it every day, and it’s an extremely useful piece of punctuation that helps avoid problematic ambiguity. It provides clarity and structure, and it could mean the difference between a sentence that is easily understood and one that is totally meaningless.

There do exist some instances of lists that do not absolutely require the Oxford comma. For example, it’s not necessary to include the Oxford comma when I explain that my dog’s favorite toys are her ball, rope and stuffed squirrel. We instinctively know the rope and stuffed squirrel are separate items, so you don’t have to separate them with a comma (although you certainly wouldn’t be wrong to do so).

On a separate occasion, however, I may attempt to explain that I enjoy eating my favorite meal, fish and chips. Here, we may have an issue: is my favorite meal fish and chips, or do I separately enjoy eating chips, fish, and my favorite meal?

Even more troubling problems can arise when plurals are involved. A well-known comic circulating the internet points out the confusion at a party when you invite the strippers, JFK and Stalin. If this list consists of three separate entities, then everything seems (relatively) tame. The problem is that a comma can also be used to indicate an appositive: a word or phrase that makes you “absolutely positive” about what comes before it. In this case (without the Oxford comma), the strippers are JFK and Stalin.

Ultimately, the Oxford comma is sometimes needed to clarify meaning and sometimes not needed. This creates an additional problem of consistency: if you use it only when it’s needed, your piece of writing will lack consistency, which can lead to additional confusion. Furthermore, there is added room for error when it is up to the individual to decide if the comma is necessary — not only errors of usage, but typographical errors.

In all things language-related, you should always seek simplicity. If you always use the Oxford comma, you’re always clear. If you sometimes use the Oxford comma, you’re bound to sometimes be confusing. If you forget to use commas altogether, you may end up saying something you never intended. And in marketing, clear and concise communication should be your top priority with every campaign and every piece of content.

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A Double Space After a Period Is a Waste of Space

Some people may not consider the space to be a unit of punctuation, but when you regularly transcribe handwritten marginalia from 15th-century manuscripts, you understand how important a well-defined space can be. Compared to no space, two spaces after a period feels like a gulch. And I’ve seen haphazard combinations of one, two, and three spaces after a period in pieces as well. While it’s true that double spacing after a period used to be standard practice, that hasn’t been the case for more than three decades.

Without going into a lengthy history of typography, the simple reason double spaces after the period were used is because of monospace “fonts.” On many typewriters, (I still have one in my home office), the lowercase “i” takes up the same amount of space in a document as the uppercase “W.” Apparently, this meant that it was sometimes difficult to determine where one sentence ended and another began (why the period was not sufficient, I will never know). Ease of reading, then, was the reason using two spaces after the period was adopted and taught in the waxing years of typewriter usage.

In some writing, especially poetry, preserving the monospace font is actually important because it aligns characters in neat columns on the page. But if you’re not explaining the finer points of typesetting in E.E. Cummings’ self-published poetry collections (and even if you are), there is no reason to use two spaces after a period in the age of modern word processing and proportional fonts.

Plus, the only reason I’ve ever heard someone give for using two spaces after a period is that someone told them to, which is rarely a good excuse for doing anything.

As it pertains to your marketing efforts, double spacing can cause serious design issues and make your materials look outdated. When designing a physical mailer or postcard, for instance, you want to take advantage of as much space as possible. This isn’t to say you want your materials to look cluttered or uneven, but space is important, especially negative space. Therefore, you want to ensure you’re maximizing the space available by utilizing a single space after periods. The single space provides plenty of room between sentences while conserving valuable space for additional design elements.

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Using “S” With an Apostrophe Clutters Your Copy

If you’ve made it this far, you must truly be dedicated to understanding the finer points of language — which is great! Even the smallest nuances in your copy can help clarify your marketing materials, build trust among your potential consumers, and bring in excellent leads and great clients.

Of the topics we’ve discussed so far, nothing is more mysterious to most people than the apostrophe used to indicate possession. In most cases, apostrophe usage is straightforward: when you’re indicating possession, you add an apostrophe and an “s.” For example, I recently replaced my car’s struts and control arms. The car possesses struts and control arms, so I added the necessary –‘s.

Things get a bit more confusing when a word ends in “s” already. If it were, instead, James who had a car that needed work done, there is some debate about whether it is James’ car or James’s car.

Having plurals involved introduces yet another level of complexity since your parent’s car is different from your parents’ car. The word “its” brings many people right to the brink of insanity since (continuing our example) it’s a car that needs its struts and control arms replaced. (See what I did there?)

Here, I have an opinion about aesthetics that conforms with my earlier penchant for simplicity and consistency, especially as it pertains to marketing and advertising copy. I advocate using just an apostrophe if a word already ends in “s” and using the –‘s in all other cases (except for the curious case of “its” and “it’s”).

This is because, in a shocking twist of inconsistency, those who advocate for “always” adding the –‘s don’t add it to plurals. And although I may be proven wrong about this, I can’t envision a scenario where adding –‘s to a word ending in “s” adds a level of clarity that isn’t already achieved with a simple apostrophe. I can, however, envision a scenario where indiscriminately adding –‘s to everything looks ugly: the Mississippi business’s skill-less assessors’s assistants needed their supervisors’s assistance.

And when it comes to “it’s” and “its,” I’ve come through the grieving process and arrived at acceptance. You should too. Apparently, contractions take precedence over indicating possession, and that’s all there is it to it.

Punctuate Your Marketing Efforts With LaFleur

For as much as we like to showcase our refined taste in language mechanics, in the end, punctuation is a convention. We will continue to watch conventions shift regardless of our personal feelings on consistency, aesthetics, or even logic. (First, it was electronic mail, then there was e-mail, and now it’s just email). And if you’ve got a strongly held contrary opinion about punctuation, by all means, leave a comment. We love a healthy discussion.

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At LaFleur, we are experts in content marketing. With master’s-level writers and editors on staff, the quality of your content will exceed your expectations and blow your competition out of the water. And if you prefer to omit the Oxford comma or always add –‘s, we’re happy to make that happen. If your industry has unique standards for punctuation use, terminology, or writing conventions, we will align your content with those standards to make sure you’re at the forefront of your industry. We’re descriptivists at heart, and we work with our clients to create outstanding content for all their marketing needs.

Call (888) 222-1512 today or complete this brief form to learn how you can take your digital marketing to the next level.

And if you want to celebrate the minutia of punctuation with us, National Punctuation Day occurs every year on September 24.

Chip Lafleur

Chip is an entrepreneur, organizational leader, and marketing expert who combines experience in web development, marketing tactics, strategy, and team leadership with a strong ability to harness talent and hone complex concepts into concrete deliverables.