Five Punctuation “Mistakes” You Should Make

Even after 16 years working as a writer, I still make grammar and punctuation mistakes. But at least some of my “mistakes,” I make on purpose. If you want to write powerful sales copy, I suggest you start making them too. Mistakes, that is.

How so? Consider…

1) The Mercurial M-Dash – You know the “m-dash.” It’s the long hyphen-looking thing that helps set apart — and even frame — a key thought in the middle of a sentence. (See what I just did there?) Copywriters use them all the time — maybe too often — to really emphasize a point they don’t want the reader to zip past. (Would you look at that? I did it again.)

 2) The Parenthetical Pull of Parentheses – Good writers frown on overusing, even abuse, of parenthetical remarks (you know the type). And really, parentheses are not used much in sales copy either.

But sometimes (for instance, after a headline or in a sentence where you need a kind of “wink, nudge” aside to the reader) it doesn’t hurt to throw a comment inside parentheses. Done right, you can use this device to highlight the conversational, even conspiratorial tone sales copy sometimes needs to take.

 3) Culling Interest With Quotation Marks – We’re not supposed to use quotation marks unless we’re actually quoting someone who said something. Like, for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright. He once said, “I’m all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let’s start with typewriters.” Sharp fella.

 Still, quotation marks have a strange power over readers. Even when they’re not surrounding a “real” quote, they have a way of pulling readers in. Copywriters sometimes use that phenomenon by putting headlines and subheads in quotes. Or even words they just want to “emphasize.”

 (Go ahead… this is where you should make that little, cynical “I’m putting quotation marks here” sign with your fingers… ala Austin Powers and Dr. Evil.)

 4) The Evocative Ellipsis – The ellipsis, you’ve seen… haven’t you?  It’s that… how do I explain this… series of little… you know… dots that copywriters use so often in their copy. The ellipsis is supposed to just indicate missing text in a phrase. Especially where that text can be implied without being stated.

But we use it… and abuse it… in so many more ways.  Why?

Because it helps approximate the halting way many people speak. We let ideas trail off… we dance around a notion… we come back to the beginning. And we use these things, the “…,” to help us do so more fluidly and gently then you might if you were a whip-cracking grammarian. Try it. Ellipses are like potato chips. Once you start using them, you’ll find it hard to stop.

 5) The Ambitious Apostrophe – Contractions aren’t just for the delivery room anymore, my friend. Where a formal writer might frown at casual, contracted terms like “I’d”… “isn’t”… even “ain’t”… they also go a long way toward making your sales copy more casual and conversational.

Naturally, you don’t want to use these recklessly. They’re garnish on a piece of prose, spice to make it interesting. And a little something to give all those over-zealous copyeditors something to sweat about.



  1. Reading this produced a big “aha” moment for me. Well two, really…

    Firstly, I use all five extensively when the context allows less formal writing. As I just blogged I might have picked them up from reading your newsletter for a very long time. But, then again, I’ve had a tendency to make some of these mistakes for a long time*. And they are also present in a lot of copy.

    Secondly, all five also have value in the context of making website content more readable (or “scannable”) — in that they help break content up — and engaging.

    Ellipses and em dashes are particularly useful when looking to make key messages stand out in a lengthy page of web content.

    So, your mistakes have added value when used in online sales copy.

    BTW great to see the value you have offered in your newsletters available at a website!


    *This comment is a good example.

  2. Thanks Hamish! Thanks too for your post. I saw it via a “Google Alert” before I saw the link here in your reply. I have to admit… after years of writing this way, my grammar has lapsed considerably… (See? There I go again!)… but I think you’re dead-on correct. The value of this technique is even more relevant online.

  3. Hamish,

    I’m with you on everything but the quotes.

    Maybe back in the days of text-only emails – but then we still had stars and the greater-than and less-than signs. Now we have bold and italic, and bold, italic and a different color. And stars and dashes and greater-than and less-than, if you’re not in a wysiwyg system and really don’t want to add those tags. Using quotes for emphasis just sets my teeth on edge.

    And yes, I’ve been accused of being a product of the 1970s.

    But I will also end a sentence with a preposition at the drop of a hat (where did that come from?) and use periods at the end of every item in a bulleted list, even if they’re not sentences (I’m an auditory reader, and I want to help everyone else hear what I’ve written too.)

    Also, Jack, I really don’t consider conversational writing ungrammatical in the least, unless you’re using the wrong case of a pronoun – “she came to dinner with Ed and I” instead of “She came to dinner with Ed and me.” The way we talk is really perfectly grammatical, imho – I think a lot of people confuse good grammar with big words and an erudite tone. And it sounds like (well, as if would be the grammatical construction here, so maybe you’ve got a point) we three here are all agreed that conversational is the way to go.

    I do think I lay the parens on a little thick, though. If this were real copy I’d probably go back and clean them up. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *