January 18, 2017 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
Few pet peeves are more prevalent than grammar Nazism. Whether you’re a writer, editor, or neither, you’ve likely cringed at a social media post that said “your” when “you’re” was the correct choice. There are varying ways of reacting to such an error; do you move past it with little concern (after all, social media is a very informal situation), or do you fume with frustration as your view of that person deteriorates? Either way, the fact that we easily notice such errors illustrates the importance of punctuation. Because at the very least, that error is distracting.
Whether punctuation is your bane or your balm, it plays a powerful role in content, affecting everything from credibility to tone and voice. When understood and mastered, punctuation becomes an art that will strengthen and diversify content.
Image via Flickr by darinrmcclure
Remember the error in that social media post. Most of us are unlikely to think less of an individual who uses such errors. Now imagine the same error scattered across the website of a solar power company. The situation has changed from informal to formal, and now those errors mean something significant. Installing solar panels may not be the same as writing a webpage, but is it possible that the same carelessness with grammar carries over into other aspects of the business?
Even if they’re not trained, readers’ intuition can tell them that something is off, even if they can’t immediately identify the specific issue. That intuition–or the conscious recognition of the error–can damage the credibility of the writer, the claims of the written piece, and the supporting evidence. If we’re representing a client in our writing, misuse of punctuation can adversely affect the credibility of the client.
But all of this does not mean that we should be afraid of punctuation. We shouldn’t be so afraid of creating a comma splice or misusing a semicolon that fear dams our creative flow. Instead, it is our responsibility as copywriters to understand the rules of punctuation so we can use it effectively. You may not yet feel confident enough to experiment with grammar, to push the boundaries and paint in broad strokes rather than careful, meticulous strikes, but at the very least, strong, well-used punctuation will keep content clean and professional.
If strictly following punctuation rules builds credibility, painting with those rules builds a diverse and interesting tone of voice. Tone and voice are what give life to content and what makes content copy different from the technical copy of contracts and law. Creating effective and diverse tone goes deeper than simply writing the way you would speak or think, it also comes down the artistic use of punctuation. A piece of writing can follow all the rules of punctuation and still be dry, while the same punctuation can make a piece brim with life.
A brief note on tone: know your limits. Some clients and audiences may prefer a more professional or a more informal tone. Even if you can effectively convey a fun and interesting tone, it may be necessary to rein it in while writing in certain contexts. Know your canvas before you go painting with punctuation.
Diverse tone of voice can be achieved in countless ways, each of them unique to the writer. Some punctuation, however, creates universal effects that can be utilized when crafting tone. Enclosing marks (paired dashes, parentheses, paired commas, etc.), for example, are an excellent way to add interjections of thought and voice.
But be careful which you choose to use, because they don’t all serve the exact same function. Paired dashes enclose information that is closely related to the sentence and draws more attention to the information than paired commas would, parentheses enclose extraneous material that is not necessarily vital to the rest of the content, and paired commas serve as a middle ground between paired dashes and parentheses by enclosing nonrestrictive modifiers that are related to the sentence, but not necessarily essential.
Each of these forms of punctuation can serve various functions in your tone, and can also be interchangeable, depending on how important you decide the enclosed information is to the piece as a whole. When used correctly, enclosing marks can make content feel more organic. For example:
In each example, the enclosing marks had a different texture, just like the strokes of a painting, but they each served a similar function that contributed to the voice of the sentence. All thanks to a little punctuation.
Sometimes, artistically using punctuation is easier said than done. After all, thanks to the English language, there are many exceptions to many rules. For instance, is it takeoff or take-off? That little hyphen makes a difference (both answers are correct. It depends on the context!). Because we all need a reminder once in a while, here are some excellent resources for ensuring that your punctuation is always spot-on:
The Purdue Online Writing Lab: Best friend of college students everywhere, the Purdue OWL website contains straightforward explanations of just about everything from punctuation, to grammar, to citations.
Grammarly: This is a free resource that, when downloaded, checks your punctuation as you write. It also explains the error to help you understand the principle.
Grammar Girl: If you want an example of how to effectively use voice and tone, then check out Grammar Girl. This website contains thorough but fun explanations of various punctuation and grammar issues.
Punctuation isn’t something to be feared or avoided. With mastery of punctuation comes the ability to effectively utilize it as a form of art, as a method of diversifying and clarifying content. So experiment with semicolons and throw some thoughts in between those paired dashes. Use the art of punctuation to take your content to the next level!
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