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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.

RELATED CONTENT: Why Write? The Relevance of Good Writing in the Internet Age

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.

RELATED: Content Marketing and Management Services for Businesses

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.

Content Marketing Nuances: Double vs. Single Quotation Marks

Relatively speaking, punctuation is a fairly new development in the history of writing. The problem with including punctuation, paragraph breaks, or any graphemes not undeniably necessary for conveying meaning is that writing materials were, until the last few centuries, extremely costly or extremely inconvenient. Clay tablets, wax surfaces, bark, and leaves – all of which were used for writing at different times and in different cultures – have obvious disadvantages. Papyrus and parchment were both labor-intensive and expensive materials to make. Even ink, especially in vivid colors, required pricey materials to create. In fact, some legal documents from the Late Middle Ages indicate that scribes and artists were paid not by the merit of their work but by the amount of rare pigment that was used in its creation. Of course, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it – at nearly $3,000 a gallon, even cheap black printer ink is an incredibly precious commodity in modern offices.

content marketing
15th century excerpt from a Latin manuscript: Book of Hours

So, to conserve space on expensive pages and preserve the costly ink used to fill those pages, scribes would pack as many words as possible into their work. In many manuscripts that predate the printing press, it’s virtually impossible to tell where one word ends and the next begins; there’s even a term for this style of writing: “scriptura continua.”

By the middle of the 16th century, punctuation was beginning to become standardized because of the expanded use of printing presses, the corresponding plummeting costs of paper and ink, and wider distribution networks for books. For example, double quotation marks became common in printed works between the 16th and 17th centuries. The single quotation mark was developed around the turn of the 19th century in order to clarify the use of quotes within quotes.

In America, using quotation marks is relatively easy and generally follows the history of quotation marks: double quotes are used for direct quotations, and single quotes are used to mark quotes within quotes. Below are two examples:

  • Abraham Lincoln wrote that “the leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence.”
  • Our history teacher told us, “Abraham Lincoln wrote that ‘the leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every calling, is diligence.’ ”

In the United States, we also use double quotation marks in a few other conventional ways:

  1. To denote titles of short works like articles, poems, TV episodes, or songs. (Italics are used for titles of longer works like magazines, long poems, TV series, or albums; at 434 lines, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is often regarded as the quotation mark/italics demarcation.)
    -The writers of Breaking Bad incorporated many literary references into the show, like Walt Whitman’s famous poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
    -Time recently ran an interesting piece about how video evidence is interpreted and used in the courtroom entitled “The Problem With Police Body Cameras.”
  2. To indicate that words are being discussed as words. (Sometimes italics are also used for this purpose – as long as a piece is consistent with usage, either method is correct.)
    -Interestingly enough, the words “lawyer” and “loyal” both share a common root word in Latin.
    -During his grand jury testimony, Bill Clinton famously remarked, “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” (Note that single quotation marks are used here because the word being discussed as a word is within a quotation.)
  3. To indicate sarcasm; these are known as “scare quotes,” though the term “scare quotes” can also mean quotes that are used to scare readers.
    -To be clear, your “argument” is that if we allow same-sex couples to marry, people will soon be able to marry their dishwashers?
    -I stopped asking him for advice when I discovered that his “credentials” consisted primarily of photoshopped certificates printed at Kinkos.

Controversy over the use of quotation marks arises because different parts of the world use quotation marks in different ways. In British English, for example, single quotation marks are used for direct quotations, while double quotation marks are used for quotes within quotes. The “correct” use of other punctuation, such as periods, with quotation marks also raises a lot of hackles among grammarians. The primary issue is how to treat something within quotation marks as a syntactical unit. In American English, most punctuation goes within quotation marks: One of my favorite poems is “Birches.” In British English, punctuation frequently goes outside of quotation marks: One of my favorite poems is “Birches”.

The British English style of punctuating is often referred to as “logical punctuation”; however, the simple truth is that all punctuation is generally either (1) used as a convention – which has no relationship to logic whatsoever (it’s conventional to say “bless you” when someone sneezes, the logic – and origin – of which is fairly dubious) or (2) used to clarify meaning – there’s likely no confusion about the meaning of the sentence above: One of my favorite poems is “Birches.” In fact, taking truly “logical” punctuation to its extreme can be quite ugly: What does Shakespeare mean when he asks, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’?; is he being tentative or declarative in his use of ‘shall’?

Ultimately, punctuation should clarify meaning and not interfere with someone’s reading. Stylistic choices – even within a country – can vary from publication to publication, from university to university, from business to business, and from one setting to another. (Many people don’t take the time to punctuate their texts, but they certainly take the time to properly edit their resume.) Over time, the “rules” governing the use of punctuation will likely continue to change, especially since the Internet has exponentially widened the distribution network for content much like the printing press did for books.

When you’re making decisions about style on a website, in a publication, for your e-mail campaigns, on your social media platform(s), and anywhere else, the primary consideration should be your target audience. Are you marketing to casual millennials in an informal e-mail campaign? Perhaps the occasional LOL or emoticon is acceptable 😉 Are you trying to attract educated professionals to your website? Spending a few extra minutes proofing your next blog post will undoubtedly be worth your while. Are you marketing internationally? It might behoove you to become familiar with standard usage in the regions you’re targeting.

And if you don’t want to have to worry about any of this, you can get in touch with someone at LaFleur Marketing about our content marketing services. We can make your life easier, promote and unify your brand, and make your business more profitable – you can quote me on that.

Photo credit: quinn.anya / Best Bobs / CC BY-SA