By Joseph Priest
“Jessica is leaving on April 12th, 2016” or “Jessica is leaving on April 12, 2016”? “The memo was sent to: associates, managers and vice presidents” or “The memo was sent to associates, managers and vice presidents”? And “Norma met with account executive Betty Schaefer” or “Norma met with Account Executive Betty Schaefer”?
Did you pick the right ones? The correct sentences above include “April 12, 2016,” “sent to” (with no colon) and “account executive Betty Schaefer.”
In my role as writer and editor for almost the past 20 years, I’ve continued to come across some of the same grammar and style errors specific to PR writing, made by PR pros at all levels, from new graduates to seasoned veterans. Over the years, I’ve distilled 10 of the most confounding of these, and in this blog post I’ve compiled them in the quiz below.
Each error is in the form of an example in the sentences below, and each example gets progressively harder. To test your writing skills, read each sentence, try to find the mistake, and check your answer against the explanations further below. All answers are based on the 2015 issue of the Associated Press Stylebook, although in one explanation I include commentary to provide guidance on a rule that is particularly confusing.
Mistakes are embarrassing, unacceptable and, of course, detrimental to business. Regardless of how experienced you are as a writer, it’s important to always be on guard against these common errors and not settle for anything less than perfection.
Let me know how you do on the quiz. Good luck!
- Sabrina works in sales & marketing.
- Ray will arrive on March 7th.
- The media kit is comprised of news releases and fact sheets.
- Company XYZ, Inc. is a provider of financial solutions.
- David’s media outreach is targeted to: news sites, trade publications and blogs.
- The product provides four benefits:
- Faster processing
- Offers single point of access
- Lower cost
- Integrates legacy systems.
- Company ABC’s annual growth rate fell 1 percent, from 10 percent to 9 percent.
- When Linda travelled to London, she cancelled her plans to go to the theatre.
- Paul found the answer by going on the web, going to the company Web site and going to the news web page.
- Jeffrey Immelt, Chief Executive Officer of GE, heads one of the world’s largest companies.
- Don’t use an ampersand unless it’s part of an official name (e.g., Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble). Many PR pros subconsciously use this symbol as a shortcut whenever “and” comes between two related terms (e.g., research & development, sales & marketing). Don’t.
- Although dates with months are normally pronounced as ordinal numbers in American English, they are properly written as cardinal numbers. Say “March 7th,” but write “March 7.” In general, use ordinals with dates when a day is preceded by the word “the,” as in “the 16th of May.”
- “Comprise” means “to contain or embrace,” so nothing is ever “comprised of” something. The phrase that people usually mean to say when they write this is “composed of.” The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole, or the whole is composed of the parts: “The jury comprises 12 members. The zoo is composed of 42 animal exhibits.” If “composed of” sounds stilted, “consists of” and “made up of” are options.
- The corporate identifier “Inc.” is no longer separated by commas in a company name, but the problem is that many people put a comma before “Inc.” and not one after. “Inc.” not separated by any commas or separated by two commas is OK, but to use one comma before it and not after it is an error.
- Colons shouldn’t be used between a verb and its object (“The tour was scheduled to cover: Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans”) or a preposition and its object (“The campaign was directed at: newspapers, magazines and TV outlets”). In these cases, no colon is needed.
- Be careful to maintain parallel structure in bulleted lists. If the first item is a noun, the following items should be. If the first item starts with a verb, the following items should, too. If the first item is a complete sentence, the following items should, too, and so on.
- It’s easy to get tripped up on differences between percentages, because the difference is usually one of percentage points, not percents. In the example above, the growth rate fell one percentage point (from 10 to 9) but fell 10 percent (one is one-tenth of 10). For this reason, be careful in stating differences between percentages.
- “Travelled,” “cancelled” and “theatre” are British-English spellings. For American speakers, the American English spellings should be used: “traveled,” “canceled” and “theater.”
- “Web” with a capital “W” should be used as a short form of “World Wide Web,” a proper noun. Although “Web” is increasingly written with a lowercase “w” and treated as a common noun in many technology publications, “Web” is still the AP style standard. The spelling “website” became the AP style standard in the 2010 stylebook and replaced the two-word spelling, “Web site.” “Web page,” though, should continue to be written as two words with a capital “W.” It remains two words because “page” is not ordinarily used to form single words, as “front page” and “back page” attest.
- According to AP style, a title shouldn’t be capitalized unless it’s used directly before a name and, importantly, unless it’s a formal title. This is a title indicating a scope of authority or professional activity, such as president, queen, doctor, colonel, bishop or professor. It’s different from a job description, such as waiter, reporter or sales representative, which would not be capitalized, even directly before a name. However, after years of trying to clarify these nuances, I’ve concluded that this style rule is the single most confusing one in PR, and that it contradicts a basic instinct in PR – to accord status to organizational leaders. Consequently, in the interest of simplicity, this is what I recommend. If your document is intended for reproduction in the media, try to follow AP style and only capitalize a formal title used before a name. But for documents intended for corporate, marketing or internal communications – such as websites, brochures and newsletters – go ahead and capitalize titles before and after names.
Joseph Priest is a corporate writer at Syniverse, a mobile solutions company headquartered in Tampa, Fla., where he manages Syniverse’s style guide and blog. Over his career, he has worked in a number of writer and editor roles at companies including Ketchum, Philips Electronics and WTVT, the Tampa Fox television affiliate. Connect with him at email@example.com or www.linkedin.com/in/josephpriest.