Saturday, November 12, 2011

Commas are *not* pauses

This $10.95 book by René Jacques Cappon of The Associated Press is neither remedial nor scholarly. It's a slim, practical, example-filled, in-between sort of book that business professionals and other writers can quickly skim.

Second-grade teacher's good intentions gone awry

The chapter on commas alone is well worth the price of the book and then some. I'm not exaggerating when I say this chapter will change your professional life.

Here's why: Many of us learned in first or second grade that a comma is a pause. Our teacher fed us this fallacy because we were new to the written word and, while scrawling our first sentences in unsteady handwriting, we had to be reminded incessantly to apply a period, a space and then a capital letter. (I have volunteered in elementary schools for several years now, so it's fresh in my mind how much children struggle to remember those seemingly arbitrary details.)

Then, after we get the period-space-capital pattern down, our teacher throws a new form of punctuation at us, the comma. We're startled and we feel betrayed. Our teacher kindly explains, "The period is a full stop and the comma is a pause." We relax a bit and obediently try to apply the new punctuation mark.

Hence, the willy-nilly application of commas

Unfortunately, that's the last time most of us hear anything about commas. Consequently, as grownups now writing professional documents, we apply commas willy-nilly whenever the voice inside our own head hears what could be identified as a pause.


Every comma has a reason for being. Commas are not subjective. They are not pauses.

What makes the elementary-school fallacy particularly destructive is the fact that we don't all hear pauses in the same places. We each have our own syntax, usually without being aware of it. The typical rookie editor tampers with other people's commas, forcing them into spots where they hear a pause and removing them from places where they don't. This is a waste of your company's time and demoralizing to the person whose work you're editing.

Top students use this book

This book, "The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation," will clarify things for you, primarily through examples. Hooray! *Finally*, your ambivalence and errors can be put to rest.

I create and give writing and critical-thinking workshops, including a few different kinds of classes related to copy editing. I use this book only with my top copy-editing students.

Disclosure/clarification: I worked for the AP in the early to mid-1990s, but I don't make any money from the sale of this book. In fact, it was published in 2003, about seven years after I left The AP (and three years after I had already become a writing coach in Silicon Valley.)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Press releases: A necessary evil & how to use them

Corporate press releases -- ugh. Raise your hand if you agree.

Let's face it, most corporate press releases aren't newsworthy, compelling or relevant to readers, often because the approval process is excessive.

Unsurprisingly, surveys repeatedly have shown that top-notch news media hardly ever use press releases for sourcing stories.

That said, press releases do in fact have great value for corporations -- internally, that is. They may trigger the start of an internal process involving multiple departments, catalyzing people in a variety of functions and aligning them around common business objectives. Once the approval process for a press release is complete, there's consensus. And if there isn't consensus, there's a new awareness of divisive issues or not-well-thought-out questions that may not have come to light so quickly.

A press release is a stake in the ground. It's a public statement of what a company does, believes or intends, with the help of which partners and for whom. It's useful for archiving. You can look at press releases posted on a company's website to see where it's been.

If you work in PR, I suggest writing an email pitch tailored to a specific news reporter, emphasizing information that your own research tells you will be useful to that particular news reporter.

In the last line, include a link to the press release, inviting the reporter to have a look at it for further information. It's unlikely the press release alone will be of interest, so I recommend including it but not relying on it.

Caveat: Earnings releases and other financially relevant announcements are the exception. These have external news value because they influence the decisions of people outside the company who buy and sell stocks, as well as help the company fulfill SEC requirements for proper disclosure.