New and necessary punctuation marks — say what you really mean

Every so often, you come across an article that makes you laugh out loud (we’re a bit too old to LOL) and this one is no exception. In it, the writer has identified eight new punctuation marks that can only enhance our literary offerings and it went round HN HQ like wildfire. Once we’d picked out a few favourites, it was only a matter of time until we came up with a few of our own. We’ll be revealing a new punctuation mark each day.

We’ve spent hours slaving over these punctuation marks — or pictuation marks as we prefer to call them… OK, so we haven’t — the slightly frivolous nature of the task meant we deployed a slimmed-down approach to our research:

1. Think of something amusing
2. Google it to see if someone has already thought of it
3. Click on a non-Wiki link (that makes it detailed research)

And this threw up some surprising results. For example, a printer named Henry Denham beat Carey to her rhetorical question mark by more than 400 years. Sadly, its use died out in the 17th century, but we’re happy to pay homage to a kindred spirit and revive it as the first of our pictuation marks.

What this exercise has shown us is that it’s sometimes quite a challenge to fully express ourselves, even with the wealth of vocabulary and punctuation available to us. And that’s where our copywriting team can help.

We hope you enjoyed these — here is the full infographic. And why not come up with a few definitions of your own? Just use the #pictuation tag and we’ll post the best ones.

Here’s the code if you want to put this infographic on your website:

Are you the information source your audience turns to first

When Nicholas D Kristof returned to the New York Times after five months off to write a book, it was such a relief. Although many fine journalists work for that newspaper, his column is the one I always turn to first, and I’d genuinely missed him.

What makes his articles so compelling? Partly, of course, it’s the topics themselves. He tackles a huge range, from the civil war in eastern Congo, to gun control in the US, to how far we’ve come in eradicating certain diseases. But plenty of other writers tackle these topics too, so why am I so hooked on reading Kristof’s take?

The first reason is simply the way he writes: crisp, clear, accessible, engaging. The second is the way he concretises whatever he’s writing about. That may be by using a personal story — effectively, a case study — such as how trachoma surgery transformed the life of a named woman in Mali, when discussing advances in healthcare in developing countries. Or through the use of statistics, such as a comparison between the relatively low number of Americans who die each year from terrorism compared with the much higher number who die from firearms injuries, to support his argument that the US needs to rebalance its focus on those two issues.

There’s never anything flimsy about Kristof’s columns: you know that thorough research has taken place, and that he has developed a credible thesis and drawn valid conclusions.

Being the source of information your audience turns to first or can’t do without — that has to be the aim of any organisation that publishes articles, news stories, blog posts, case studies, white papers or similar. Kristof’s example of best-practice journalism goes a long way to demonstrating how to achieve that.

Adventures in English not always required

I find that reading anything by Will Self turns into an exciting opportunity to learn new words or be reminded of others that are rarely used. Among the delicious words I encountered from skimming just a couple of his Guardian articles recently were: acicular, insensate, prelapsarian, fungible and fervid.

That’s all very well when you’re reading for pleasure (or even to improve your own vocabulary!), but not so good when you’re reading for business — when a clearly communicated message is what counts. What’s more, we’re increasingly finding that the collateral we write in English is being read by people whose first language isn’t English. There’s no point risking losing their attention or misleading them by using unfamiliar words and phrases.

Self freely admits: “I don’t really write for readers … I write for myself.” That’s the diametric opposite of what we do, as Su reminded us in her recent ‘best advice’ blog about writing being all about the reader, not the writer .

Ultimately, there’s a fine line to tread between overly ‘plain’ and overly ‘fancy’ writing. The trick is to keep the copy fresh and lively enough to engage the total readership, without making it unnecessarily challenging for non-native speakers of English.

The best advice I was ever given – don’t wee all over the document!

The best advice I was ever given was by my boss when I worked in telecoms. The office was like a library that morning — everyone was beavering away and the hush was palpable…until, that is, my boss came flying out of his office, shattering the silence with, “What have you done? You’ve weed all over this document!”

Now, I should pause for effect at this point so, like me, you could let the potential meaning of this statement percolate. No, he couldn’t smell wacky backy. No, the pages weren’t damp. His shock was at my overuse of the word ‘we’, which meant I hadn’t put the customer at the heart of my writing.

I’ve never forgotten that advice (how could I?) and now always check for two things when writing:

1. That the piece identifies with the readers and their needs
2. Whether writing in 1st, 2nd or 3rd person, that I don’t overuse words like ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’

Sometimes it helps to read the piece out loud — you’ll soon find out if you’ve weed all over it!

If you have some great advice to pass on, use the hashtag #bestadvice on twitter and we’ll retweet, drop a comment in the comment box or send us a mail:

The best advice I was ever given — writing is about the reader, not the writer

It was one of the more nerve-wracking moments of my life. I’d been a journalist for maybe a month or two and was waiting for my editor’s feedback on the first feature article I’d ever written.

“It’s lovely Su,” she said, to my relief. I should have realised there was a big ‘but’ coming. She pointed at my final paragraph, the culmination of some 1,000 words of copy, and added: “But you see this paragraph here? This is the start of the article; it’s what it’s all about, it should be right up front.”

The issue wasn’t that I’d failed to follow some preordained method of writing such as ‘inverted pyramid’. We weren’t reporting news; we could open an article with an anecdote, scene-setting, a question to be answered, a summary of what was to follow… whatever worked.

My editor’s point — and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten — was that I’d failed to stand back and assess my work to see if I’d told the strongest possible story for the reader. I’d failed to place the most interesting and relevant part of the story at the centre of the narrative. I’d written a well-organised piece, but it was a structure that worked for me, the writer, to organise my thoughts clearly. To draw in my readers, I needed to reassess my logical workings and, well, start again.

I’ve lost count of the times that applying this advice has helped me improve a piece of writing. I don’t think I’ve ever again made the mistake quite as badly as burying the lead all the way in the conclusion; but often I do find I need to work and rework the first half of a piece to try and get that ‘essence’ across as quickly and immediately as possible.

If you have some great advice to pass on, use the hashtag #bestadvice on Twitter and we’ll retweet, drop a comment in the comment box or send us a mail:

The best advice I was ever given — don’t be afraid to ask questions

Young children are never afraid to ask questions. Why is grass green? How do birds fly? What makes glue sticky? But as we get older, we often become less keen to reveal our ignorance. Instead, we may pretend to know or understand what someone is talking about, rather than ask a question and learn something.

The best advice I was ever given when I joined the world of marketing communications was to relearn that child-like curiosity, and never be afraid to ask questions. After all, if I don’t understand what a subject-matter expert is telling me about a product or solution — how it works, how it solves a business or technology challenge, the benefits it delivers — then how on earth can I communicate all of that convincingly to my audience?

I might be lucky and make a decent stab at it — but it’s more likely I’d end up resorting to jargon or obfuscation to mask my own lack of comprehension, leaving my audience none the wiser. I wouldn’t be doing the right thing by my client, either.

So I’m never afraid to ask a question, or even to ask a question more than once, to make sure I get the full picture. After all, it’s not just for my own benefit: I’m asking on behalf of all the people I’m writing for, too.

Best advice I was given — you can’t afford to be quiet in business

As a young, shy engineer, I found myself bumping along in the back seat of the VP of Engineering’s rather sporty sports car, on our way to a team-building event. This loud, exuberant North American whizz kid was troubled and it was all because of me.

“Say something!” he shouted over his shoulder. “You quiet people freak me out. Now loud people, you know what they’re thinking ’cos they’re saying it. I have no idea what you’re thinking and that scares me!”

I knew I’d struggle to rival the VP in the loudness stakes, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t learn to express myself better. It turned out to be one of the greatest pieces of advice given to me and, in following it, I began writing down my opinion — the first step towards a career I really love.

But this isn’t just about spending time doing fun stuff. The deeper message is that in business, we can’t afford to be quiet. The greatest products and services in the world are worthless if no one out there knows about them and if you keep your cards close to your chest, you may even scare potential customers off.

That’s why, however you choose to express yourself, it’s really important to get a loud, clear, coherent message to the outside world.

If you have some great advice to pass on, use the hashtag #bestadvice on twitter and we’ll retweet, drop a comment in the comment box or send us a mail:

The dangers of auto-correct and spell-checkers

We’ve all seen funny screenshots circulated of auto-correct howlers; many have had me crying with laughter. Most of them are too rude to publish here but you can always visit Damn You Autocorrect — but, you have been warned!

While some are undoubtedly faked, they do show us why we need to be really careful, particularly with phone auto-correct functions that don’t even check with us first. How many promising personal, employer-employee or client relationships, have been derailed by hitting the ‘send’ button too soon?

Office grammar checker or human editor?

One bugbear of mine is the way my phone treats ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ — it seems to interchange them quite randomly and as a copy editor, this could reflect quite badly on me.

And just yesterday, Microsoft Word asked me if I’d like to change, ‘That’s why…’ to ‘Those’s why…’ — I declined, but at least it checked with me first!

Those Office grammar checkers are improving. As well as the red and green squiggles, we now have the blue squiggle that says, “Are you sure?” and I’ll confess, I get the blue squiggle sometimes. It’s not that I don’t understand the difference, but sometimes I’m typing so fast, my fingers work on auto-pilot.


They don’t catch everything, though. In the example below, the repeated word has been highlighted, but the spell-checker hasn’t taken the context into account to suggest the correct spelling (it’s ‘hear hear’, by the way).


I love the fact that technological spelling and grammar checkers are helping people express themselves in ways they never thought possible, and these tools are improving all the time. I use them as part of my proofing checklist, but they will never entirely replace human editors and proofreaders, who will give your copy that extra sparkle.

Creeping Britishisms

We’ve all heard about ‘Americanization’ — the influence of the US on our own lingo. But perhaps we weren’t as aware of the influence that we have on US English.

It’s easy to think that the early American settlers took the English language with them, Noah Webster tinkered with it, and that was it. However, the reality is that the two variants are much more fluid and interwoven than that. Indeed, Bill Bryson talks in his book, Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language, of how modern American English is actually a closer reflection of old English than modern, UK English itself.

US English — more British than you think

Some of the grammar rules I learnt at school are now considered old fashioned here in the UK, but still very much current in the US —handy when I’m asked to write in US English! So where I would still use title case in American headlines, I would most likely use sentence case for UK clients. And the serial comma I wrote about recently — something we associate with American English — is also called the Oxford comma because its use is standard for the Oxford University Press.

Recent reports have highlighted some interesting examples of modern-day language creep. According to this BBC article , words that we think of being typically American, like ‘diaper’ and ‘fall’ (the season) actually fell out of favour in the UK in the 19th century. And in a follow-up article , we learn that Americans are starting to adopt ‘autumn’ in favour of ‘fall’.

Writing for US readers

So where does this leave you if you’re writing for a North American audience? Our advice is to tread carefully when using colloquialisms, particularly when writing business collateral, but to keep your finger on the pulse in these times of person-to-person communications. If in doubt, you can always get your copy professionally localised so you know it will speak directly to your readers.

And if you want to take a deeper look at how we’re influencing our transatlantic cousins, Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad, has devoted himself to writing an informative and entertaining blog on the subject.

Trim the fat: simplifying abbreviations

Continuing with our theme of “things we were taught at school”, abbreviations are another area where we now differ from our colleagues in the US. Take ‘for example’, for example. I was taught to shorten the Latin ‘exempli gratia’ to e.g. Not only that but if the sentence continued, you’d have to add a comma:


It just looks so messy! Fortunately, thanks to some gentle coaxing by my colleagues at HN, I’ve managed to let those full stops go. We write eg and ie and it’s fine, although we’re careful not to overuse them as they can make your writing looked rushed.

Here are some more examples of how we differ from our North American counterparts:

U.S., U.S.A, U.K.US, USA, UK
a.m.,, pm
Mr., Mrs., Dr.Mr, Mrs, Dr

At HN, we are always looking for ways to simplify our copy, in favour of readability. But don’t forget that US readers will still look on it as a grammar error if you leave out the punctuation, so make sure you keep your audience in mind when you’re writing.