Because Style Makes a Difference
By Ronimarie Acord
We’ve discussed the need for your organization to have an editorial style guide, but you also need to update that guide regularly. Our language is constantly evolving. That’s why Middle English and Elizabethan English require translation for most of today’s students, and even common jargon from the 1960s, for example, can be so dated that it’s hilarious.
The rules of punctuation and grammar evolve, too. Just recently, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) — long a bastion of formal English usage — released its 17th edition (the first was published in 1906) to great hoopla among editorial folks, including a few of us at Aartrijk.
We don’t expect you to be as passionate about language as we are, but we consider it part of our job to produce content for clients that conforms to the latest editorial guidelines. In our experience, the most effective businesses update their communication style as frequently as they refresh their websites and logos. We’re also aware that your use or misuse of language can affect your reputation and even have legal consequences.
Two notable punctuation changes in the new Chicago revision are that email is no longer hyphenated and internet no longer needs to be capitalized. Our observant clients probably have noticed that Aartrijk hasn’t been hyphenating email or capitalizing internet for some time. That’s because we adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook, which responds more quickly to changes in English language usage and is the standard for journalistic and business writing.
Here are a few punctuation habits that have never been stylish or correct, but that proliferate like weeds, making organizations appear dated, provincial and unprofessional. If you find them in your company communications, eradicate them before they erode your credibility.
Too many exclamation points. Writing gains power from precise and descriptive language, not from punctuation. The danger of using exclamation points habitually is that they lose their impact. Suddenly, one exclamation point is not enough, and you’re tempted to use three or four to adequately convey your emotion. Instead, use stronger, emphatic writing.
Quotation marks for emphasis. If you’re interested in how riotously or bizarrely wrong a set of quotation marks can be, read The Book of ‘Unnecessary’ Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation, by Bethany Keeley. Use quotation marks only to enclose another person’s exact words. If you feel a need to place quotation marks around a random word, ask yourself if you’re really using the best word.
Capitalizing words to indicate importance. In general, capital letters should be used for proper nouns, at the beginning of a sentence, and in formal headlines. Misusing them is a common error among students and companies alike. Do you tend to capitalize the first letter of every word that seems important? Capitalizing a common noun because it’s special to your organization comes off as sophomoric. And once started, the trend is difficult to stop.
Here’s what AP Stylebook has to say about common nouns:
“Capitalize common nouns such as party, river, street and west when they are an integral part of the full name for a person, place or thing: Democratic Party, Mississippi River, Fleet Street, West Virginia. Lowercase these common nouns when they stand alone in subsequent references: the party, the river, the street.”
Here’s more from CMOS.
Using ALL CAPITALS for emphasis. Do you fight the urge to use words or phrases in ALL CAPITALS? Not only is all-cap text harder to read, but it’s internet code for shouting. Using a word in all caps can be so distracting that it frequently has the opposite effect of what is intended. Be polite. Use powerful words instead.
Misusing semicolons. There are only two semicolon rules and only one occasion in general writing when a semicolon is necessary for clarity: to separate items that have internal commas in a list. Here’s an example:
The spate of tornados devastated Paris, Illinois; Springfield, Missouri; Columbus, Indiana; and several rural Kentucky communities.
Unless you can cite the second rule for using a semicolon, don’t use it. Your readers will never miss it.
Using apostrophes to make plurals. We make words plural by adding s or es to the end: houses, dogs, PDFs, taxes, Tuesdays. An apostrophe followed by an s signifies possession: dog’s ears, house’s exterior. Because we’re talking about English, there must be an exception: It’s means it is, and its is the possessive:
It’s true that the business lost its customers.
For more helpful tips about apostrophes and plurals, consult Grammar Girl.