When writing copy for your website, do you spend way too much time wondering if it’s appropriate to use an exclamation point? Know the difference between a hyphen, en dash, and em dash—and when to use them? Do you ever mix up your single and double quotation marks?
We get it. You probably didn’t get a degree in English or journalism. You’re not trying to be the next Faulkner or Hemingway, and, unlike our copywriters at Sigl Creative, you probably don’t have a favorite punctuation mark.
(It’s a semicolon.)
This blog post is for you—the business owner or marketer who doesn’t want to spend hours a day thinking about commas and parentheses.
Today we’re addressing the most common forms of punctuation and how you can use them to better communicate with your audience. First, let’s start with some foundations for punctuation in marketing.
Your main goal when writing copy is to communicate clearly so your audience understands your product. As Donald Miller, author of Building a StoryBrand, says, “People don’t buy the best products; they buy the products they can understand the fastest.”
Punctuation is one tool that helps you communicate with your readers. It tells your readers when one idea ends and another begins. Punctuation marks are like road signs that guide your readers through your copy.
Be careful that you don’t get hung up on the grammar rules you learned in high school. Your audience doesn’t want to read a paragraph-long sentence with a dozen commas and a semicolon.
They aren’t reading an award-winning novel or academic paper. They’re reading your blog, emails, website, or flyers. You have to fight to keep your readers’ attention—which means you can’t be boring or confusing.
Your reader should never have to think about your punctuation. If your reader is puzzled over your commas or use of a dash, your copy is unclear and distracting.
Good punctuation is grammatically correct.
The best punctuation goes entirely unnoticed, even if it means breaking some rules.
A great copywriter uses punctuation in ways that seamlessly guide the reader from one idea to the next, never drawing attention to the language itself.
Now, let’s look at some common forms of punctuation and some ways you can use them in your marketing assets!
Ending a Sentence (Periods, Exclamation Points, and Question Marks)
Periods, exclamation points, and question marks probably come to mind first when you think of punctuation. These three symbols mark the end of a sentence or complete thought.
You’re going to use periods the most. Periods don’t draw attention to themselves, and your reader will barely notice them.
Questions are great for drawing in your reader. They often pose a problem your reader wants solved.
While not typically used in formal writing, exclamation points are quite appropriate for copywriting. You’re excited about your business! You want your reader to be excited, too.
Consider using no more than 1–2 exclamation points per paragraph, and never 2 in a row.
Periods serve other purposes, too. You use them after certain abbreviations (“P.S.” and “Mrs.”). You can also create sentence fragments to emphasize a point or slow your reader down.
Just. Like. This.
Questions, exclamations, and fragments are useful ways to break up the flow of your copy and make it more exciting. But be careful—the majority of your sentences should be complete sentences ending in a period. If you use too many exclamations and fragments, they lose their potency.
Cut Back on the Commas
Commas separate ideas within a sentence. You’ll find a lot of rules out there about commas and when to use them, but try not to get overwhelmed. A general rule of thumb is to use a comma anywhere you feel the urge to pause when you read your writing out loud.
Just don’t get too comma-happy. It’s typical in copywriting to forgo traditional grammar rules in favor of cleaner, crisper sentences.
Look at your commas. If you take one away, does your sentence change its meaning? Does it become hard to read? If the answer is no, you can probably get away with removing the comma.
Also try rearranging your sentences to cut back on your commas. See if you can find a way to communicate the same idea with fewer commas.
For an in-depth guide on using commas, see The Punctuation Guide.
Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash
English has 3 kinds of dashes: the hyphen, en dash, and em dash. Hyphens are the smallest, while em dashes are the longest.
The hyphen is the shortest, and it’s usually used to connect two or more words into a compound word. Think “state-of-the-art,” “check-in,” and “father-in-law.”
Technically, you also use hyphens when writing certain numbers and fractions like “twenty-five” and “two-thirds.” However, good copywriters almost always use numerals instead of writing out their numbers. “Twenty-five” is long and clunky-looking. On the other hand, “25” catches your reader’s eye.
The en dash is a medium-sized dash that you will not use too often. Its main purpose is to show a range of numbers, such as “1–2” or “5:30–8:30pm.” It offers a little more space than a hyphen does so the numbers are easier to read.
Em dashes are the longest of the bunch. They show an interruption or a sudden shift in tone. You can use one at the end of a sentence to segue into a related idea, as if you’re so excited you can’t wait for a new sentence:
“Schedule a consultation today—spots are filling up fast, so don’t miss out!”
You can also interrupt a sentence with an idea, placing an em dash at the beginning and end:
“Our latest model—available in cherry red and sporty blue—can be yours today for just $79.”
Em dashes are handy marketing tools. They make the page more visually exciting for your reader, and they add some energy to your copy. But don’t overuse them. Just like fragments and exclamation points, em dashes are more powerful when you use them sparingly.
Show Off Your Voice With Parentheses and Ellipses
Parentheses are versatile pieces of punctuation. You can use them to clarify an idea, answer a question, or add a little aside to your audience. The words you put in parentheses can have a slightly different tone, like a secret whisper shared between you and the reader.
Here are some examples:
- “Copywriting (the practice of writing for marketing or promotional purposes) aims to drive the reader to take a particular action, such as make a purchase or submit an email address.”
- “We’ve all been there. You sit down to write a blog post, and the next thing you know, it’s 4 hours later and your Word doc is still blank. (Yeah, it happens to us, too.)”
- “This program is great for everyone, including the work-from-home crowd. (We see you in your sweatpants and Zoom-appropriate top.)”
Ellipses, a series of three periods, add a bit of informality to your writing. This symbol suggests that you’ve trailed off or forgotten your place. If you’re trying to mimic human speech, an ellipsis can work wonders. Consider this example:
“Picture your ideal house, with a picket fence, plenty of room for the kids, the kitchen of your dreams, a big yard for your dog, a man cave for all your husband’s hobbies. . . What if I told you that you could have that house 12 months from now?”
Ellipses can also indicate an omission in a direct quote. Ellipses should be limited to one per page, but you can be a little more liberal with your parentheses.
Quotations and Apostrophes
Use double quotation marks when you’re directly quoting someone, writing dialogue, or referring to a word or phrase your audience may not be familiar with. Quotation marks indicate that the words you’re using aren’t yours—or that they exist outside of the copy you’re writing, like the example sentences and phrases in this blog post. They’re different from the explanatory copy.
Use single quotation marks when you’re quoting something inside a set of double quotation marks. You probably won’t be using many quotes within quotes while copywriting. On the rare occasion you do, alternating between single and double quotation marks helps your audience distinguish between the quotations:
- “The Sigl Creative blog calls Donald Miller’s Building a StoryBrand ‘foundational’ and ‘essential for all marketers.’”
- “The Sigl Creative blog says, ‘As Donald Miller, author of Building a StoryBrand, says, “People don’t buy the best products; they buy the products they can understand the fastest.”’”
Apostrophes form contractions or indicate possession. (“Can’t,” “y’all,” “James’s,” and “John’s” are examples.) A few notable exceptions to this rule exist (“its” is possessive while “it’s” means “it is”), but apostrophes shouldn’t give you too much trouble. Check out this guide by Grammarly for a more extensive list of apostrophe rules.
Colons and Semicolons
A colon introduces a list or precedes a definition. A colon says, “Pay attention! The words before me get expounded on in the words directly after me.” Like this: “We pride ourselves on 3 main virtues: consistency, boldness, and diversity.”
Then there’s the colon’s oft-misunderstood cousin, the semicolon.
As much as it pains our copywriters, you don’t need to worry about semicolons.
Semicolons connect 2 complete, independent clauses. (That quote from Donald Miller we used earlier? It’s a great example of how to use a semicolon.) You can also use a semicolon to separate items in a list if the items require a comma.
As a copywriter, you probably won’t have many occasions to use a semicolon. It’s a wonderful, elegant piece of punctuation—but it isn’t very useful for marketing. If you feel the urge to use a semicolon, you’re better off turning your two clauses into separate sentences.
For lengthy lists with complicated items, consider using bullet points instead. A bulleted list is easier to understand and more eye-catching than a list with semicolons.
Rounding off our list is the forward slash, a punctuation mark that can create fractions, take the place of the word “per,” and present multiple options. Its “multiple-choice” use is kind of informal and gives you an opportunity to be cheeky and fun. Don’t overuse it and be mindful of your audience’s sense of humor.
- “As many as 1/4 of Americans don’t know how to use a slash in a sentence.”
- “You should use ellipses sparingly, no more than once/page.”
- “When you’ve completed this grammar course, you’ll be sure to impress your friends/wife/investors/piano tuner with your knowledge of punctuation.”
This isn’t an exhaustive list of punctuation marks, but you’re most likely to encounter these while writing copy. Use these tips and tricks to guide your reader from one idea to the next, communicating clearly and letting your brand voice shine through.
Maybe you read this whole guide and still feel lost when it comes to punctuation, word choice, and grammar. Schedule a call with Sigl Creative, and let our copywriting experts handle the commas for you. We’ll make sure your brand’s words are clear and concise so your readers know exactly what you’re trying to offer.