Five rules to write by

Last week, Scott and I had the honor of presenting at the Ragan PR Conference in Chicago. Our 45-minute session promised attendees instruction in “how to avoid the 10 cardinal sins of bad writing—and prevent your copy from ending up in the trash.”

During our talk, PR pros noted their personal pet peeves as well as the legitimate inaccuracies that come up again and again in their organizations. We made a heartfelt promise to address the biggest, most black-and-white rules in a blog post—and here it is. Most of these rules are clearly backed up by the two preeminent style guides of the day—the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Journalists (and therefore PR pros) adhere to the former, while book publishers and other formal writers prefer the latter. You can decide what is right for your organization—but there’s no denying the following facts.

Rule 1: One space after a period.

Yes, we used to put two spaces after a period. That was back in the days of typewriters. Today, both AP and CMS dictate just one space after a period. Behold, the proof to show your stubborn two-space coworkers:

AP Stylebook, 2016 edition, page 422: “SPACING. Use a single space after a period at the end of a sentence.”

CMS, 16th edition, page 310: “A period marks the end of a declarative or an imperative sentence. Between sentences, it is followed by a single space.”


Rule 2: Don’t overcapitalize.

Just because someone is important doesn’t mean their title is capitalized in a sentence. “President Barack Obama came to dinner.” BUT “The president, Barack Obama, came to dinner.”

AP Stylebook, 2016 edition, page 273: “In general, confine capitalization to formal titles used directly before an individual’s name.”

CMS, 16th edition, page 363: “Initial capitals, once used to lend importance to certain words, are now only used ironically. ‘”OK, so I’m a Bad Mother,” admitted Mary cheerfully.'”


Rule 3: Pick a side on the Oxford comma debate and stick with it.

One of the bloodiest debates in modern punctuation involves commas. The Oxford comma is the one that comes before the conjunction “and” in this sentence: “I love cheese, wine, and crackers.” Without the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma), the sentence would be written, “I love cheese, wine and crackers.” Both are acceptable depending on what style guide you use. Pick a side and stick with it.

AP Stylebook, 2016 edition, page 417: “IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue.”

CMS, 16th edition, page 312: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…since it prevents ambiguity.”

For the record, I’m an Oxford comma fan.

Rule 4: Spell out numbers up to nine—or up to one hundred. It depends!

This rule completely depends on what style guide you use.

AP Stylebook, 2016 edition, page 198: “In general spell out one through nine: the Yankees finish second. He had nine months to go. Use figures for 10 or above and whenever preceding a unit of measure or referring to ages of people, animals, events or things.” [Editor’s note: The AP Stylebook dedicates more than three full pages to numerals. It’s a great read with a glass of Cabernet by your side.]

CMS, 16th edition, page 464: “In nontechnical contexts, Chicago advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers…Thirty-two children from eleven families were packed into eight vintage Beetles.” [Editor’s note: Chicago acknowledges the existence of the one through nine rule as a viable alternative. CMS dedicates an entire chapter—more than 20 pages—to numerals.]

Rule 5: Avoid cliché and jargon

Inexperienced writers tend to lean heavily on cliché and jargon. You see this a lot in business writing. The cliché is particularly wily: “taking the bull by the horns,” “thinking outside the box,” and “right-sizing” are well understood and tempting to lean on. People dive into cliché and jargon because they think it’s the easiest way to be understood, but it’s very quickly tired. It doesn’t make you sound smarter. A lot of jargon is shorthand for nothing.

To underscore this one, I leave you with the words of the wonderful Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style.

Classic prose is a pleasant illusion, like losing yourself in a play. The writer must work to keep up the impression that his prose is a window onto the scene rather than just a mess of words. Like an actor with a wooden delivery, a writer who relies on canned verbal formulas will break the spell. This is the kind of writer who gets the ball rolling in his search for the holy grail, but finds that it’s neither a magic bullet nor a slam dunk, so he rolls with the punches and lets the chips fall where they may while seeing the glass as half-full, which is easier said than done.

Avoid clichés like the plague—it’s a no-brainer.

Want to know more hard and fast rules of grammar? Let us know in the comments or ask us on Twitter.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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