One of our writers recently shared the following story: Back in college, she — who hails from Pittsburgh — was dating a guy who was born and raised in Arizona. One fall, her family came to visit from the east coast (and meet the boyfriend). He showed up to the family gathering in white shorts. White! After Labor Day!
As much as the family insisted you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day, it’s not a “rule.” It’s a preference. And that’s kind of how we can think about grammar and style.
People ask me all the time how to punctuate bullet points and whether they should use the Oxford comma. But these questions — and many others — come down to an organization’s style rather than grammar. Grammar refers to rules that apply broadly to a language, whereas style varies by publication and organization.
Of course, just because style isn’t law, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consistency. In fact, once you decide on your organization’s copy style, you should write it down and stick with it. Why? A few reasons. First, it helps solidify your brand. Just as you use designated fonts and colors in your marketing materials, using consistent style choices reinforces your brand’s look and feel.
Second, it unifies your voice. You may have three writers working on various parts of a campaign, but your audience doesn’t need to know that. It can even save you time. Having a style guide means you don’t have to expend any mental energy deciding whether to include spaces before and after dashes in copy. And while you now know that style choices aren’t about right and wrong, your audience may not. If you’re inconsistent, you’ll start to look wrong. And you risk irritating and confusing your audience.
There are tons of considerations you could make when it comes to copy style — the Associated Press (AP) publishes a whole book full of them — but you only need to make decisions about the ones you encounter frequently to start. Begin by considering these seven style questions.
1. The Oxford comma
Let’s be honest, this one is controversial enough that even non-word people debate it. The Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, is the optional comma preceding the final item in a list.
Oxford comma in use: I like apples, bananas, and oranges.
Without the Oxford comma: I like apples, bananas and oranges.
While your seventh-grade English teacher may have docked you points for forgetting to use the Oxford comma, newspaper editors the world over — at least the ones who follow AP Style — leave it out.
A quick Google search uncovers plenty of arguments for the Oxford comma and against the Oxford comma. As far as AVC goes, we side with AP. Unless there is a need to include it for clarity of a specific sentence, we don’t use it. Most of the time, the Oxford comma is unnecessary, and we’re all for less is more.
2. Spaces around em dashes
If you wish to follow AP style like we do, treat en and em dashes (and even ellipses) like words of their own and include one space before and one space after. Plenty of online publications have dropped the spaces, though, so you really can’t go wrong either way (as long as you’re consistent).
3. Do’s and don’ts
Both the above spelling and “dos and don’ts” are acceptable. But we side with AP and spell it do’s, because our high school Spanish classes left enough of an impression that we can’t see “dos” without thinking two.
4. Punctuating bullet points
Capitalize the first word after each bullet, and punctuate phrases and sentences with periods (but not single words) if you follow AP Style. Separate bullets with a semicolon, if you want to look like a pretentious weirdo. (Kidding! … Sort of.)
5. Healthcare vs. health care
One word or two? AP Style separates health care, but we work with plenty of hospitals that prefer “healthcare,” so that’s what we’ve adopted. And quite frankly, we agree.
6. Capitalization (part 1)
We once worked with a hospital that insisted on capitalizing “Hospital” on every reference, and we died a little inside each time it came up. But you know what? They were consistent throughout the organization, er, Hospital, and so we learned to live with it.
We hope you’ll skip this one, but you will need to decide if you’re going to capitalize such things as department names, job titles and conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, etc. We don’t in most cases, but we also know that some higher-ups will go to bat over capping Chief Executive Officer, so go with your gut.
7. Capitalization (part 2)
What about headlines? This largely will depend on your background. AP Style, and thus, writers with news backgrounds opt for sentence case (capitalizing only the first word in a headline). Magazine writers generally use title case, which can be a little muddier and vary by publication. Commonly, title case refers to capping the first letter of every word except for articles and prepositions over four letters. And capitalize the first and last words in a headline no matter what.
Sentence case: How to write a headline about punctuation
Title case: How to Write a Headline About Punctuation
While style differs from grammar, the two are equally important in marketing communications. Once you’ve made a few determinations, be sure to document your organization’s style choices so everyone who publishes on behalf of your company can be on the same page. Check out How to Write Your Own Style Guide for more detailed instructions.