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Copy-wise

Cyber what? Why consistent style isn’t everything

typewriter

Photo by Bob Newman on Unsplash

As writers and editors, we live in perpetual dread of errors, typos and inconsistencies appearing in our copy. After all, this is our business. We’re meant to be professional.

We’ve written about this before: Pragmatism and clarity should always come before consistency.

It’s just sometimes hard when you see inconsistencies in your copy. Or at least things that readers and clients take to be inconsistencies. Think of it as a kind of mild grammar anxiety.

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So if we’ve talked about this before, why bring it up again?

Well, two reasons. First, because it’s advice to last the ages and never gets old.

Second, at Collective Content we are blessed to have a number of cybersecurity clients. We write a lot about cyberthreats, cyber risks, cyberattacks and cyber resilience.

See the problem?

How do we apply this to writing about cybersecurity? Or cyber security? Or even cyber-security?

The general rule of thumb we use is that if the phrase is in common usage then one word is better than two. So cyberattack, cybercrime and cybersecurity are always one word.

If the phrase is less common, then we split it in two to avoid the reader stumbling over it. Think cyberintelligence.

Another general rule is that when the first letter of the second word is ‘r’ (e.g. cyber resilience and cyber risk), we use two words, otherwise it just looks weird (cyberresilience and cyberrisk).

We’re not big fans of hyphenated words. Full stop. Or period.

Remember clarity and legibility are more important than consistency. We want to get the message across clearly without the reader stumbling across new words in an ever-evolving language.

I just felt compelled to explain this rule to a client and it made me feel a whole lot better. I thought sharing it with a wider audience might help spread the love even more.

So if you see these little ‘inconsistencies’, just know there is method behind the madness.

I hope this was as cathartic for you as it was for me.

 

(Ed: Don’t get me started on do’s and don’ts.)

 

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Copy-wise: Don’t forget the hyphens

Good punctuation isn’t just a nicety for academics and grammar snobs. Without it, our communications can be a lot more confusing, troublesome and even costly.

For example, the lack of an Oxford comma recently dealt a legal blow to a Maine dairy that was fighting overtime pay for its delivery drivers, when a court ruled the description of who was and who wasn’t covered by overtime rules was too ambiguous to find in the employer’s favour. Tell those dairy drivers good punctuation doesn’t matter.

Most of the time, lists can work with or without Oxford commas, so the decision on whether or not to use them usually boils down to simple style preference. Once in a while, however, this so-called serial comma is a must… because, without it, some sentences can be ambiguous at best or highly confusing at worst. (Consider, for example, what this Oxford-comma-free sentence suggests: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Pope Francis and Björk.”)

There’s another source of ambiguity I’m seeing a lot lately, though: the habit of leaving out hyphens in compound adjectives. Why is that a bad thing? Look again at the sentence in parentheses in the paragraph above and imagine it without the hyphens in ‘Oxford-comma-free’. What you get is this:

‘Consider, for example, what this Oxford comma free sentence suggests…’

Is the sentence ‘free’ while also having something to do with the ‘Oxford comma’? Or is the sentence from ‘Oxford’ also ‘comma free’? Without the hyphens, the meaning becomes a whole lot harder to parse.

Other examples abound:

“I saw a man eating alligator.” Unless you’re having locally-hunted dinner in Cajun country, the correct version is probably: “I saw a man-eating alligator.” (Suggestion from Woodward English.)

“Santa should wear a fire proof vest.” No, what he should wear is a fire-proof vest. (Inspired by Mignon Fogarty, aka ’Grammar Girl’.)

“Because a violent weather conference isn’t the same as a violent-weather conference.” (Credit: The Wichita Eagle’s Grammar Monkeys Twitter account.)

“Because a small-state senator is not the same as a small state senator.” (Grammar Monkeys again.)

 

So next time you string two adjectives together in front of a noun, look at them and ask whether a hyphen would help make your meaning clearer.

As Lynne Truss wrote in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a classic book of punctuation stickling: “Phrases abound that cry out for hyphens. Those much-invoked examples of the little used car, the superfluous hair remover, the pickled herring merchant, the slow moving traffic and the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party would all be lost without it.”

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Copy-wise: Beware of the Apostrophe-pocalypse – 3 rules

Ugh, you may groan. A blog post about punctuation? And not just punctuation in general but a post about just one punctuation mark in particular: the apostrophe? Boooooring.

Only it’s not true. In addition to being so often misused and abused – or, actually, because it’s so often misused and abused – the apostrophe can be controversial, rage-inducing, profane or even funny (though, admittedly, generally in the grammar-scold-humour sense).

Greengrocers (produce sellers, to the Yanks out there), for instance, seem to have long been Public Enemy No. 1 when the crime is apostrophe abuse. All those hand-lettered store signs about “fresh apple’s”, “new potatoe’s” and “ripe tomatoe’s” really infuriate some grammatical sticklers. They’ve even led to the creation of a trade-specific term (“greengrocer’s apostrophe”) and inspired a small multitude of wry buttons, stickers and notecards. (They include one with the message: “Grammar. The difference between feeling your nuts and feeling you’re nuts.”)

Rule No. 1: Whether you’re talking vegetables or decades, apostrophes do not turn singular items into plurals. Contrary to a classic 1985 ‘Mr. Language Person’ column by American humour writer Dave Barry, an apostrophe is not meant to “alert the reader that an ‘s’ is coming up at the end of the word”.

Apostrophes do indicate contractions, although not in the way Barry described in another column in which he used the example: “This childbirth really hurt’s!” Instead, they are used in expressions like “do not” minus the “o” (“don’t”) or “Andrea is busy” minus the “i” (“Andrea’s busy”).

According to writer Simon Griffin’s 2016 book, Fucking Apostrophes, the practice of using the punctuation in this way can be traced back to a 15th-century French printer named Geoffroy Tory, who presumably wanted to save time or sometimes came up short on letters during a printing job. In fact, Griffin writes: “Most people generally agree that fucking apostrophes come from the Greek hē apóstrophos, meaning a turning away or an elision (the omission of a sound or syllable when speaking).”

(Apostrophes, though, don’t cost money, so poverty is no excuse for leaving them out… as Al Copeland, the late founder of the Popeyes restaurant chain, used to joke in explaining his business’ lack of an apostrophe.)

Rule No. 2: Apostrophes are used in a variety of situations where letters are left out. These include contractions (“couldn’t”) and omissions (as in “’80s” for “1980s”).

As Griffin notes in his book, there are exceptions to these rules that can make things confusing… something he found difficult to explain to designers in his work as a copywriter. That’s the reason he wrote the book in the first place, he told ABC Radio Perth last November: “[T]he more I tried to explain to them, the more I found myself going in circles. There would always be an exception to every rule I tried to tell them.”

This is especially the case in another situation where apostrophes are used: to indicate possession. When something belongs to Claire, for instance, we say it’s “Claire’s”. But it gets a little trickier for plural subjects, where the apostrophe is typically used without the following “s” (i.e., “the boys’ model cars” or “The Simpsons’ three-eyed fish”). And then there’s the exception for something that belongs to “it”, which doesn’t use an apostrophe at all (i.e., “Here’s my trophy and this is its case.”)

Rule No. 3: An apostrophe followed by an “s” is used to indicate possession but when the subject itself is plural or ends in “s”, an apostrophe alone often does the trick (i.e., “the Gross’ car”. Though there are exceptions, such as “St. James’s station” on the London Underground).

Finally, remember that languages are living things and – like other living things – they evolve and their rules change. Technology and the pace of change today can sometimes help speed that process up, which means that acceptable uses or omissions of apostrophes can change as well. As Griffin points out, apostrophes don’t work in URLs or Twitter hashtags, so they’re increasingly being left out in names or phrases that appear online often.

“Mistakes will always be made,” he writes at the close of his book. “My advice is simply to apologise and politely point out to the person correcting you that apostrophes aren’t as fucking simple as they might think they are.”

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