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Copy-wise

Copy-wise: Beware of too many, too few or misplaced commas

Imaginehavingtoreadentirebookscompanyreportsorwhitepapersinwhichwordswerent separatedbypunctuationofanykindcanyouimagineunderstandinganythingthefirsttime

Writing that way would seem like the opposite of clear communication, wouldn’t it? But that’s actually how information was recorded in ancient Greece, when all writing was meant to be read aloud by speakers familiar enough with the text to understand where – and how long – to pause between words.

Fortunately, today we have the comma, question mark, dash, semicolon, colon and exclamation mark to help break our written words into clear, manageable chunks. But they do this only if they’re used correctly. When they’re not, they can create confusion just as much as writing without any punctuation at all.

Let’s start by looking at the comma. This little curly mark has many good uses. But it also seems to be getting more than its fair share of abuse lately. Consider a few of these based-on-real-life examples:

Besides the benefits, this will bring to both our companies, this move will help our customers as well.

Rather than negatively affecting our customers, partners and suppliers, this buyout, a way of combining our company’s strengths with another’s will boost the appeal of both our offerings.

This problem arises when businesses that have offices in many parts of the world and need local suppliers, try to find services without understanding the region’s culture.

In all of the above examples, commas appear where they aren’t needed (after “Besides the benefits” and “need local suppliers”) or aren’t used where they should be (after “our company’s strengths with another’s”).

The problem shows up most often in sentences that are long and complicated. This illustrates why it’s important to keep writing succinct and try to stick with one key thought per sentence. When you muddle a sentence with multiple points, it’s easier to get lost in the punctuation weeds.

Beyond that, though, it’s worth reviewing the fundamentals of good comma use. Contrary to what you might have been told at some point, this doesn’t include putting in a comma “whenever you take a breath” while reading your writing out loud.

Instead, there are 10 simple rules for using commas properly, according to journalism professor Miles Maguire’s The Comma Project from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Use them to:

  • Separate elements in a series (e.g., “We bought bread, olives, cheese and fruit.”)
  • Separate two independent clauses when they’re connected by an “and” or other conjunction (“We went to the market, and then we stopped by our old school for a visit.”) – although also check out our take on the Oxford Comma, which may or may not be the right style for you
  • Follow an introductory phrase that’s four words long or longer (“Before I drove to the train station, I picked up my clothes from the dry cleaner.”)
  • Set off a non-essential modifying phrase (“William Shakespeare, whose birthday is traditionally observed on Saint George’s Day, began his career writing comic and historic plays.”
  • Separate adjectives of equal importance (“The bright, modern dining room was set for a birthday party.”)
  • Set off a parenthetical word or phrase, or a word like “yes” or “no”) (“The park, of course, was empty during the stormy weather.”)
  • Set off a participial modifier (“Robert sat quietly for a moment, stunned by the TV programme’s final episode.”)
  • Mark a quote or paraphrased comment when appropriate (“Lara laughed and said, ‘I don’t believe it.’” However, no comma is needed in this sentence: “Lara laughed and said she didn’t believe it.”)
  • Set off cities, states, countries, dates, ages and titles (“The two boys, ages 15 and 17, arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 15, 1967.”)
  • Separate two identical words when used next to each other (“The question is, is this enough to get started?”)

Finally, if you’re writing a complicated sentence that absolutely can’t be shortened, it helps to look out for missing commas by following this rule of thumb from writer and English/journalism professor Ben Yagoda:

“It may sometimes be because these phrases are so long that by the time we get to the end of them, we’ve forgotten about the first comma. In any case, a strategy to prevent it is to remember the acronym I.C.E.. Whenever you find yourself using a comma before an Identification, Characterization or Explanation, remember that there has to be a comma after the I.C.E. as well.”

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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.

­

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.)

 

Follow us on Twitter – @ColContent

 

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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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Contact us

Contact us to find out how we can help you:

Email:  tony.hallett@collectivecontent.co.uk

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