In “Don’t Be That Guy, Part 1” we discussed capitalization mistakes that marketers commonly make. Capitalization is important, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all of solid content writing. To truly establish authority on a subject and be convincing as an industry thought leader, you need to pay attention to punctuation and grammar.
In Part 2, we will address some of the most common punctuation mistakes that we’re all guilty of from time to time. Like the capitalization faux pas, these are also easy fixes.
Just to note, there are a few different style guides you can follow, and each has its own rules. While most of the rules for grammar are the same across style guides, there are a few instances where they differ. In general, we use The Chicago Manual of Style, which is geared towards publishing. However, if we are writing content for the press, like a press release, we follow the Associated Press Stylebook.
Here’s a look at the most common punctuation and grammar mistakes we see:
As any professional writer or editor what their thoughts on the Oxford comma are, and they’ll likely have a strong opinion that they will gladly (and sometimes a little too passionately) share. That’s because the rules vary depending on which style guide you follow. Some of the most popular style guides, like The Chicago Manual of Style and The MLA Style Manual, call for its use, while the equally-popular Associated Press Stylebook advises against it.
But what is an Oxford comma?
Also sometimes referred to as a serial comma, it is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms.
Example: My biggest role models are my sisters, my brother and my parents.
In this instance, removing the comma after “brother” doesn’t make much of a difference, which is why many choose to leave it out. However, there are some cases where it provides necessary clarification.
Example: My biggest role models are my sisters, Beyoncé and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In this instance, one could misinterpret the sentence to mean that your sisters are Beyoncé and Eleanor Roosevelt. While in this case, the meaning is clear given the context, it may not always be.
For the most part, you are free to choose whichever style suits you (unless you are writing for a press publication). Just be sure that you’re consistent throughout the piece.
Word nerds around the globe cringe when they see this common faux pas. Unnecessary apostrophes happen all the time.
Common errors we often see:
You almost never, ever use an apostrophe to indicate a plural. Apostrophes are generally used for contractions and possessives. Most people tend to struggle with when and where to use an apostrophe.
When writing a contraction or removing letters and numbers, place the apostrophe where the missing characters should be.
Add an apostrophe and s to show possession for most singular nouns. Add only an apostrophe for most plural nouns.
The biggest source of confusion we commonly see is when someone is indicating that a singular noun that ends in s is also possessive. You may have heard that if a word ends in s, like in the third example, you should only use an apostrophe. This is not entirely true. Generally, that rule is only applied to plural words that end in s. If the subject is singular (like business), it should still have –’s at the end.
Sometimes, words can be pronounced the same (homophones), or spelled the same (homonyms), but have entirely different meanings. These instances are very tricky, and there are too many to list. By far, the most common mistake we see is mixing up its and it’s.
The confusion is understandable. It’s counter-intuitive, because there is both a contraction and a possessive. The contraction gets the apostrophe. The possessive pronoun doesn’t. Write its like you would write his, hers, yours, or theirs. None of these pronouns have an apostrophe, but all are possessive. Its is the same.
Other tricky cases:
There’s no quick rule for these, unfortunately. It comes down to recognizing them and ensuring you’re using these words in the correct context.
While there are always a couple exceptions to the rule, punctuation always goes inside quotation marks.
Sentence-ending punctuation marks almost always go inside of the quotations when the quotes are at the end of the sentence. The one exception would be for a sentence that ends in a question, but the question is not part of the quote.
Example: Did she say “I haven’t been performing well”?
Not all horizontal lines in text are created equal. The confusion between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes is so common that even experienced writers can get tripped up.
These join two words to make one combined word. Do not put spaces on either side except in the case of a hanging hyphen (in the last example).
Em dashes appear between two words without spaces, and are double the length of hyphens (on MS Word, type two hyphens without spaces and it will convert them to an em dash when you type the next word). These can be used in pairs like parentheses or alone to detach a word, phrase, or clause from the body of the sentence.
There is another, shorter dash called the en dash. This means “through” and is only used to show a range of numbers or dates.
Semi-colons are an in-between punctuation mark that is half-comma, half-period. They can add variety to your writing—but that’s about it. The rules are vague, easy to mess up, and call for the writer’s discretion. Here’s a secret: you can get by perfectly fine without ever needing to use one.
There is one instance, however, where semi-colons are useful, and that is when you are listing series of items that already have commas in them.
Example: We went to Billings, Montana; Rochester, New York; and San Francisco, California.
That’s it. Unless you are a professional editor, don’t bother with semicolons.
Colons, on the other hand, can be used to introduce lists.
Colons can also be used within a sentence to introduce ideas. Think of Vanna White’s famed gesticulations. It’s a mark that says “here’s what I mean.” Colons must always follow a complete sentence.
The English language is one of the hardest languages to learn. The rules are full of contradictions and exceptions. Many rules don’t make sense at all. That’s why it confuses so many people. You don’t need to be an expert grammarian to convey professionalism, however. You just need to watch out for some of these common errors. When you write like a professional, you look like a professional.
That being said, if you aren’t confident in your abilities or have an important project that will be seen by a lot of people, you may want to consider getting a second set of eyes to look over your work, or outsourcing the writing to a professional copywriter.
At SkyRocket Group our in-house team lives and breathes copywriting. They have the knowledge and experience necessary to produce clean, professional content that conveys authority and positions you as a leader. If you’d like to learn more about our professional copywriting and marketing services, contact us today.