The Editorial Apartment

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Using the slash mark

When reviewing business copy, I often notice a lot of use of the slash mark. First, besides appearing in URLs, fractions, or dates, for example, a slash is a mark that shows options: Food/drinks will be available in the patio.

This use of the slash is a bit informal and can sometimes be awkward, hence it’s probably best to avoid it or at least not overuse it. Some think the phrase “and/or” is unclear: Does the slash really mean both “and” and “or,” or does it mean just “or”? Lawyers, in particular, don’t like “and/or”—see this article for an explanation.

There is also the spacing issue around the slash. Here’s when to put space around it and when not to:

  • If the options are single words, you don’t need a space around the slash: We have a substantial promotions/signage budget.
  • If one of the options, or both options, is a phrase, put a space around the slash to help clarify what the options are: Please sign up for our e-newsletter / text message alerts here.

If you think the spacing looks a bit awkward, avoid the slash and just use words: Please sign up for our e-newsletter and text message alerts here.


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The hyphen, en dash and em dash: What they are and how to format them

These similar-looking marks can show up in your marketing copy. If you’re wondering how they’re used and how they’re supposed to be formatted, here’s a brief explanation of the most common uses:*

Hyphen –
This little bit of line is used to join words or words with prefixes/suffixes. There should be no space on either side of it. The rules of hyphenation can be complex and controversial. Editors hyphenate differently from other editors. Style guides differ. Associated Press (AP) style has a more general approach than “The Chicago Manual of Style” (Chicago style). Examples: co-worker, paraben-free, small-business woman, blue-green water, high-quality care, e-commerce

En dash –
An en dash is longer than a hyphen. In Chicago style, it is used for ranges of things such as years, ages, months, numbers, etc. There should be no space on either side of it. In AP style, a hyphen is used in ranges. Examples: 2001–2003, July–December, pages 3–45, Wednesday–Saturday

In running text, it is best to use words instead of an en dash (or hyphen in AP style). For example, from 2001 to 2003. Don’t mix words with the en dash: from 2001–2003.

Em dash —
The em dash is an even longer line. It is used to interrupt a sentence or to emphasize a phrase. There should be no space on either side of it. In AP style, there is no such thing as an em dash. Instead, AP style uses the en dash for this use, and puts one space before and after it. Example: Begin the new year—your best one yet—with positive, fresh energy.

In marketing and advertising, AP style is the preferred style, along with a house style guide that may include a preference for the Chicago style usage of all three marks, -, – and —, instead of just the two in AP style.

This chart gives a quick rundown:
*There are other places where these marks are used (the hyphens in phone numbers, for example) and the marks can be combined. There’s even a 2-em dash and a 3-em dash in Chicago style.

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Would you like your drink with or without the comma?

One of the trickiest commas is the comma in between two or more adjectives that modify a noun. Is my hot chocolate a warming at-home beverage, or is it a warming, at-home beverage? This could be a matter of opinion, but I think most people might leave the comma out, which would make the two adjectives noncoordinating, i.e., one is subordinate to the other.

However, my good friend from Barcelona, Spain, likes to have a small, rich caffe latte to feel at home. The drink should come in a small cup and the coffee should be rich, in comparison to the typical American cup of coffee that is. The two adjectives, small and rich, are coordinating, or equal in status. Use a comma.

It’s clearer with some pairs of adjectives: I enjoyed a refreshing cucumber drink at a French restaurant in Guanajuato, Mexico. No comma.

How do you know when to use a comma or when not to? If the adjectives coordinate, then put the comma in. If not, leave the comma out. The Purdue Online Writing Lab gives some clarity (see item 6).