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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  • Kevin

    I'm an unabashed user of the serial comma, too, but it's actually how I was taught. Perhaps it's a matter of age difference (I'm 22, and just finished college). Unfortunately, I've been largely unable to compare my writing style to those of my peers to see if that's the case, as it's become clear to me that proper grammar fell by the wayside long ago.

  • Doyoupunctuate

    I am not a fan of parenthesis (mainly as a typographer they take up way too much space when type setting!) I am a lover of the square bracket and feel that sadly, it isn't used as often as it should be.

    The Oxford comma: I am firmly in your camp with that one. Most people I know use it, even though most of us admit to never have been taught how.

  • JasMollica

    I am a staunch supporter of parentheses (and this post)!
    I never really learned the Oxford comma in school, but I use it often to, like you said, make things clearer.

  • So wait, what about em-dashes? I have a friend who swears by them, but I think they're superfluous and often can be replaced by a simple comma. Thoughts?

  • I've actually had fights about using the serial comma (I'm in the anti-camp) and frankly, I think the arguments are fun. 🙂

  • paulakiger

    This post made me laugh! I proofread our local track club newsletter, and I spent a lot of time arguing about punctuation within quotation marks before I accepted the fact that the writer is more concerned with conveying the thrills of fartleks over trail runs than where the punctuation is in relationship to the quotation marks. To keep pushing the point would have harmed my relationship with the writer, put the editor in an uncomfortable position, and NO ONE BUT ME CARED. We have to pick and choose our battles! There are the super-picky issues, the issues that make or break a sentence, and the issues that fall in the middle (had to use that serial comma somehow (twice)!).

  • Rpulvino

    I'm also a supporter of the Oxford comma. Like you said, it helps make things more clear.

    I love punctuation debates. My biggest target: semicolons.

    When it comes to semicolons, I prefer to live by Kurt Vonnegut's rule:
    “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”

  • You are wrong. Dashes are amazing and commas are weaksauce.

  • TJ,

    What a fun post. Mostly, when I teach students, I always teach them the rules first and then tell them that it's okay to break those rules given a specific style.

    If you tell them first, they might not bother to learn them. Heh.

    Otherwise, I totally agree with you. One of my presentations ends with a quote from the famous sports writer Red Smith…

    “I have known writers who paid no damned attention whatever to the rules of grammar and rhetoric and somehow made the language behave for them.”


  • Ouch. Glad to hear it from a pro, now I'll go duck my head and make nice.

    Thanks Grammar Fairy!

  • I find that, if I dig deep, semicolon haters usually are hiding their inability to use them correctly. Hmmm….

  • Rich Pulvino

    Very true. I have a hard time understanding how to use them. Practice makes perfect, though.

  • Awesome post. Although, I have to admit, I am not a fan of the Oxford comma. Why? Because of how I grew up writing! Call it even? You keep your comma, I keep my (lack of a) comma?

    So true though. It's easy to get worked up and bent out of shape when someone disagrees with what you consider a grammar “rule”. Pick your battles … the same way you do in a relationship ; )

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