in Copywriting, Punctuation

Literally Speaking

When you read something, I mean actually look at the letters and punctuation on the page, how do you know what it says? I mean, the letters spell words – that’s relatively straightforward – but beyond that, what determines what the letters and spaces and bits of punctuation actually say?

This may seem a silly question, but you’d be surprised how relevant it can be. If you’re a copywriter, or an editor, or a graphic designer – and definitely if you’re a writer – or even just someone interested in making sure your meaning is understood, then “orthography” (roughly translated, “correct writing”) is a discipline it’s worth getting your head around.

For example, should the abbreviated forms of “mister” and “doctor” in names be Mr. and Dr. or Mr and Dr? (I personally prefer the dot on the end to mark the abbreviation of a word.) Why is it ‘e.g.’ rather than ‘eg’? (There, the dots distinguish a lowercase abbreviation from the sound “eg” pronounced as a word.)

With more ordinary punctuation things can get a little complicated. It can vary according to context and personal style and of course which country you’re writing in (American and British use of dashes, for example).

Last time, we touched on the comma for direct address, which, on a related note, helps us avoid misreading sentences by separating the name of the one being addressed from the rest of the sentence (e.g., ‘Use the Force, Luke.’). Here are a few brief examples of how to use other commonly confused bits of punctuation:

  • The ellipsis (or ‘…’) – used for omissions and that trailing-off-into-the-distance effect – e.g., ‘Who knows what horrors lurk below …’ (note the space between the word ‘below’ and the ‘…’).
  • The hyphen (or ‘-’), often confused with the en-dash (‘–’) or forgotten entirely – used to link closely connected words (e.g., ‘tax-free’, ‘oven-ready’, ‘over-complicated’), and a tricky little bugger at the best of times (which we haven’t got time to go into thoroughly now).
  • The en-dash (‘–’) – used to signify an explanation or interruption, and the like (see what I did there?). Also used (rather than a hyphen) as follows: ‘the 1939–1945 war’, ‘pages 203–219’, ‘the London–Edinburgh train’, ‘U.S.–U.K. relations’.

You don’t need to overthink it, though. How you would say something out loud can often be a useful guide – or at least provide a hint – what to do. Generally, the more natural-sounding way will work better (as long as you have an idea how to signify/punctuate it). Rules are there to help us, after all, not trip us up.

Of course, all this is without going into things like italics for emphasis and the Proper Use of Capitals, and a whole range of more specialised or creative ways of using punctuation and type, as well as other ways of using symbols to convey meaning when we write (which is kind of what orthography and, to a certain extent, typography are all about).

It can seem intimidating when you first start learning – but being aware of the differences and how they affect meaning is a useful first step, and will hopefully help in the meantime.

Of course (blatant-advertising alert), if you have a project it’s really important to get right, a good copywriter – just to pick an example completely at random – could help you with that …

Until next time, write on …