It doesn’t matter whether you’ve digested the dictionary or possess the vocab skills of a Shakespearean beat poet: people will still think you’re a bad writer if you don’t know how to use punctuation properly.
These little characters provide the breathing space for your language to make an impact on readers, turning your carefully selected words into elegant sentences and paragraphs.
Sadly, they can also be a pain in the butt if you don’t understand where and when to use them. Sticking an unnecessary apostrophe or semicolon where there shouldn’t be one is a surefire signal that you’re an amateur wordsmith.
When you’re writing copy to represent your business, a single punctuation mistake could be enough to put off potential clients and send them looking elsewhere. Nearly 60% of people surveyed in this study said that they wouldn’t use a company that makes obvious grammar mistakes.
So how can you make sure you’re avoiding the embarrassing mistakes that might put off customers? One way is to work with a professional copywriter – someone who makes it their mission to craft compelling copy with immaculate punctuation.
Another is to get your head around the most common punctuation errors that people make on a day to day basis, and avoid making them yourself. Here are some of the most common punctuation mistakes people make in their business copy, and a few nifty tips on how to dodge them.
The ultimate punctuation mark for creating suspense… or an overused cliffhanger cliché? Whatever your view on ellipses, it’s important to get them right if you want to include them in your marketing copy.
An ellipsis should always comprise of three full stops, and nothing else. Not four dots, or five, or any other number of dots that appear on your document when you hold down the full stop button on your keyboard.
It’s a common misconception that the more dots you use, the longer your reader will pause before moving on to the next word. In reality, all that using too many full stops in your ellipsis does is make you look a bit silly. Don’t do it!
There’s something alluring about the ampersand that people can’t seem to get enough of. Maybe it’s those tempting curves, that exotic flick, or the fact that big brands use them in their logos all the time (Marks & Spencer, Holland & Barrett, Bang & Olufsen).
Thing is, you should never use an ampersand in body copy. These little beauties should only be used within brand names or for graphic effect, such as in a company logo. Shoehorning them into your sentences in place of the word ‘and’ is not an acceptable shortcut – it merely makes your copy look sloppy.
Boy oh boy, do people get irate when apostrophes aren't used properly.
Probably the most misused punctuation mark of them all, poorly implemented apostrophes will at best make your business look amateurish; at worst, fuel passive aggressive comments from grammar grumps beneath your latest social media update. Not exactly the positive reception you were hoping for.
Generally, apostrophes should only be used in the following scenarios.
To indicate possession. For example: “The chocolate buttons were Fred’s.”
To contract words, such as ‘do not’ into ‘don’t’. For example: “Don’t eat my chocolate buttons!”
There are a few other fiddly rules for using apostrophes, so to really nail them, check out this excellent infographic from The Oatmeal, handily illustrated using sketches of kittens and singing velociraptors.
4. Hyphens and dashes
They’re technically two different pieces of punctuation, but hyphens (-) and dashes (–) are regularly mistaken for one another.
Hyphens are shorter in length than dashes and should only be used to connect two or more nouns which act as a single concept. For example, the phrase ‘state-of-the-art’ contains hyphens.
Dashes are longer than hyphens, and can be used to create a sense of pace and free-flowing thought in your writing. Famous linguist William Strunk Jr advised using them when you need something stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon and more relaxed than parentheses. For example: "I’m a big fan of dashes – they’re a solid substitute for more common punctuation marks and keep your copy feeling fresh."
Just to make things tricky, hyphens and dashes usually occupy the same computer key, with hyphens being the default option. To type a dash on a Mac, hold down Alt while pressing the hyphen key. Windows users require a more cumbersome shortcut to summon up dashes: Alt+0150 is the magic formula you need.
There’s a quick and easy rule for using semicolons that could save you a lot of hassle: if you aren’t sure whether to use one, don’t bother.
While it’s true that a few sparingly placed semicolons can add finesse to a piece of writing, getting them wrong has the opposite effect. Besides, there’s almost always an alternative to using one of these fiendish punctuation marks.
But what if you’re dead set on using semicolons in your copy? Here are some tips for mastering them.
You can use semicolons to connect two independent but related clauses. For example: “I don't like that hat; it's too pointy.” Although you could technically use a full stop, the semicolon signifies a closer link between the two related statements.
Semicolons can also be used to separate out items on a list, particularly if the list items contain commas. For example: “My favourite PlayStation games include Crash Bandicoot, a cartoon platformer; Final Fantasy VII, an epic RPG; and Resident Evil, a survival horror featuring the worst voice acting of all time.”
Not sure whether you’re using punctuation properly? Drop me an email with your writing woes and I’ll get those squiggles and dots working for you.