Your Copy Sucks: Punctuation Ruins Lives

Man Looking at Question Mark in ClassroomThis blog post begins on a personal note. I am legally obligated to tell you that in case you are a very important person who can’t be bothered with personal notes. You have been warned!

I’m currently dating quite the sweetie and life is pretty good, I guess! We have fun times, and we’re both wordy people. Ahhhhh, the joy of conversing with someone who knows what adverbs are! It’s quite nice.

But a spanner was thrown in the works, guys. We had our first fight. And it was about punctuation.

How can someone hate parentheses!? It’s like hating parking lots! They’re going to be there whether you like them or not, but at least they serve a purpose. I lobbied hard for parentheses in this fight, but then my unabashed hatred of ellipses was thrown in my face. But ellipses are stupid! ellipses are often misused and misunderstood, whereas parenthesis, in my mind, have the clear task of setting a word or phrase aside, not as a footnote, but as a little whisper in the middle of everything. That’s important, I argued.

Here’s where the story starts becoming relevant to you and your work: somewhere, some day, you will write a piece of copy and submit it for approval. It will be the most perfect copy you have ever written. Everyone will love it and want to run with it–except for one guy. One guy who wrinkles his nose at it and says, “Everything’s great, but can we take out these semicolons/ ellipses/ parentheses/ dashes/ colons/ commas/ quote marks? They just distract me/ don’t look right/ mess up the “flow”/some other vague reason.”

He may be the only person on the committee that felt that way. Whether his reasoning is valid or not, you, the writer of the copy, will be peeved because if he’s the only one that’s bothered, why should you change it? But that one dissenting opinion will slowly infect your manager, your coworkers, your client, and your staff. They’ll spend way more time than necessary looking at those semicolons/ ellipses/ parentheses/ dashes/ colons/ commas/ quote marks and asking themselves, “Does this distract me? Does it look right? Is it wrong?”

Here’s the thing about technical aspects of copywriting, the big secret that “word people” are hiding from you: there are very, very few hard and fast rules in writing, all things considered. A lot of times, the rules are made to be bent. Or broken. Or some other sentence fragment. A lot of times, it’s all a matter of taste.

To use one eternal grammar nerd battle as an example: I am a user of the serial (or Oxford) comma. (See baby? That’s a perfect use for parenthesis, just sayin’.) The serial comma is the last, some would say optional, comma in a series of three or more words or phrases. As in: I like to eat butter, eggs, and cheese. That second comma is a serial comma. And I love it. I think it helps makes things more clear without talking up too much page space. I’ll use it with my dying keystroke.

But why do I really wave the Oxford comma flag? Because that’s how I was taught as a child. And it would be more difficult to break the habit now in my declining years than to just go with it. It’s my personal preference. And if it saves a relationship or two, I will admit here in public that people who do not use the Oxford comma are–gulp–not bad writers by default.

My point is, it’s not the end of the world if one guy wants you to change some small technical part of your copywriting. I’m not saying roll over every time, especially if said bellyacher is in the wrong no matter how you slice it. I’m just saying there are bigger things to worry about in writing, and for god’s sakes, in life, than a dash or a semicolon.

But parentheses are still awesome.

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