PR Writing Bugbears to Grapple With in 2016


Need a resolution for the new year? As communications professionals, working on our writing is something nearly all of us could stand to do, and the best way to start is with the little details that can easily be overlooked. I turned to PR News' Twitter community to ask "What common mistakes in writing, spelling and punctuation do more people need to be careful of?" and thought I would share some of the responses (and some of my own bugbears from editing PR writing):

Commonly Confused Words

What else could I have expected? The classic complaints came up again and again:

Not far behind were effect vs. affect, principle vs. principal and so on. For a lot of educated adults, it's easy enough to look down our noses at such grade-school mistakes. But how sure are you that you know the difference between palate, palette and pallet? What about medal, metal, mettle and meddle? Here's a nice, long list of commonly confused words to study. Save yourself the embarrassment of writing that somebody is a black belt in "marital arts."  

Punctuation and Style

Punctuation and style often go hand in hand. Sure, there are applications of punctuation that are flat-out wrong, but there are those who would argue endlessly about subjective matters, such as whether or not to use the Oxford comma. This is a waste of energy: pick a style and stick to it. The easiest thing to do is to use an established style guide (if you are submitting a press release or anything else for media use, follow AP style). When you are publishing your own material, it's fine to go a bit off the beaten path and develop a house style, as long as you are consistent about it. The New Yorker does some wonderfully contrary things like spell "traveler" with a double L and use diaeresis, but it's OK because they do it consistently.

Make sure to do these things the same way every time:

  • Dashes. Do you use an en dash with spaces around it, or an em dash with no spaces? (Using a hyphen, or two hyphens jammed together, is no substitute for a dash.)
  • Ellipses. Spaced out [. . .] or packed tight [...]? Spaces before and after, or no?
  • Lists. Do you use numbers or bullets? If bullets, are they all the same size and shape? If numbers, do you style them 1. or 1— or 1)?
  • Apostrophes. "Carlos' oatmeal" or "Carlos's oatmeal"? "Early 1900's" or "early 1900s"?

Consistent Verb Tense

"He says 'Bill, I believe this is killing me' / As the smile ran away from his face" —Billy Joel, "Piano Man"

Oh, Billy. Why must you write an entire song in present tense and then stick a past-tense verb in the middle? It's like hitting a bum note on a piano. Billy Joel may be talented enough to perpetrate such a crime and still end up with a classic, but none of us is Billy Joel, so make sure your verbs don't conflict with each other if you want to give your audience a smooth reading experience.

Things You Don't Know You Don't Know

"The alleged victim testified in court today."

Can you see the problem with the above sentence? Applying the word "alleged" to the victim seems to take a skeptical attitude toward what the victim is saying. Instead, "the victim of the alleged crime" is preferred. This makes perfect sense to me, but I might never have thought of it if I hadn't seen it while browsing The Associated Press Stylebook. If you want to be on top of your game, I recommend reading it once through from front to back, not just as a reference book. Reference books only help you if you already know what you want to look up.


A final item that has been on my mind recently: If you write it, you should be able to say it. I can accept shorthand and new formations in some cases. For instance, "and/or," which might have been considered borderline unpublishable until recently, is OK in my book, because people actually say it out loud. But "his/her"? Never. You would say "his or her," and that's what you should write; omitting the conjunction is a stumbling block for the reader. For the same reason, unless it's very informal writing, I will always prefer "Christmas" to "X-mas" and "two-by-four" to "2x4." Imagine that you are writing something to hand off to a speaker, who will then attempt to read it to an audience without stammering. If you do your job well, it will go off without a hitch.

Follow Ian James Wright: @ianwright0101

  • Gail Gardner

    Good to see you deal with a higher level of challenges when editing. I just wish writers would strike these words and phrases from their vocabularies: nowadays, in this day and age and any other ‘fluff’ they seem compelled to lead with or include. I just searched Twitter looking for another phrase someone tweeted to me, and realized I have been complaining about these two since 2012.

    I am old, ok, and yes, I put a comma before the last ‘and’ in a series of related words. That one I’m willing to give up, but I still don’t want to see “to” at the end of a sentence – no matter how many declare it to be fine now.