This evergreen content was originally published on August 9, 2018. It was updated in January 2021 to add more value as part of the HIPBlog’s content update strategy.
Everyone who posts on the internet is a writer. We’ve learned that not everyone is an effective, clear communicator now that anyone can post anything online. On our personal pages, it doesn’t really matter. But when you’re creating content to inform and engage it’s a matter of clarity.
Every single person who creates content should understand the basic principles of grammar, spelling, and punctuation but many haven’t refreshed that knowledge.
There are a lot of spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules that just didn’t stick when you learned them in middle school – the kind you miss even if you read a lot of content. Here are some of them.
Effect vs. Affect
I have made this mistake countless times. One of the first times it was brought to my attention was when I was on the student-run, college newspaper. We published a headline where we needed to use affect and used effect instead. We subsequently got an email from an English professor, asking how we could have made such an error.
It was embarrassing and memorable.
Here’s how it works:
- “Affect” is a verb that means “to influence something.” That means that it’s the action of influencing or impacting something.
The temperature affects the weather.
“Affect” is the action of changing or influencing something. In this case, that’s the weather.
- “Effect,” on the other hand, is normally used as a noun meaning the result or impact of something. That means it is the result of something.
The effect of hot weather is an increased risk of thunderstorms.
The result of the hot weather is the increased risk of thunderstorms.
The way I try to think about it is that the affecting (influence) is creating the effect (result).
Punctuation Inside Quotations
If you’ve never considered where punctuation goes in relation to quotation marks, then you likely don’t know where to place them correctly.
The rules for this are simple, but you’d be surprised how often it’s done incorrectly.
The rules are:
- If beginning a sentence without quotation marks, use a comma before the quotation mark.
One of my favorite authors wrote, “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”
- In American English, when writing out a quote that continues into a non-quotation part of your writing, you need a comma inside the quotation marks before continuing the sentence.
“Artificial intelligence will be a standard marketing practice,” said the research report.
- When concluding a quotation that’s also the end of a sentence, the period is always inside the quotation marks (in American English). The story behind this is that on original printing presses, smaller marks like periods and commas went inside quotation marks to keep them from breaking. The British changed their rules on this in the early 1900s, but Americans never caught on.
B2B expert Zach said, “Let me talk to my team.”
- Your quotation ends with a question mark or exclamation mark. Terminal punctuation marks are part of the quote and the meaning would not be the same if the quote ended in a period. The exclamation or question mark replaces the comma or period.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
They jumped up and down, “I can’t wait for the holiday party!”
- If you want to use a question mark or exclamation mark as part of your sentence, but it isn’t part of the quote, then both of these marks can go outside the quotation marks
What is “content marketing”?
- Dashes, semicolons, and colons all go outside quotation marks unless they are part of a quote.
Got it? You will. Just practice. Bring your awareness to quotations as you write and review these rules. Think about the current punctuation in the quotation you are using and consider how you are using the quotation in a sentence. Then apply these rules.
Not Only… But Also
This is a strange little rule, and one of the ones I attribute to the editing class I took in college. Not only, but also is a correlative conjunction, which means that these words work together to relate one sentence element to another.
There are a handful of rules to keep in mind while using this pair:
- You have the option to use a comma before the “but also” component. Decide if you want to. A comma adds a pause and extra emphasis but isn’t mandatory.
- Keep each half parallel. What does that mean? It means that both halves of the sentence use the same part of speech.
- You can drop the “also” part of “but also” if it makes your sentence sound better.
This one is not only a bit obscure, but also super satisfying to use.
I had a college journalism professor who was known to exclaim, “Semicolons are sexy.”
I’m not sure I agree with her, but there’s something incredibly gratifying about seeing a semicolon used correctly.
The rules for semicolon usage are simple, though it takes some practice to use them correctly. They are:
- Semicolons unite two clauses that are closely related but could be their own, standalone sentences.
I biked to work; I’ll have to catch an Uber home because of the rain.
- Semicolons can be used between items in a list or series if there are commas in any of the items
The B2B marketer needed to create files for the following addresses: 213 Freeville Lane, Rainville, New York, 12345; 345 Thurston Lane, Joyton, Massachusetts, 13454; 98 Pleasant Drive, Hickorytown, Michigan, 7657.
Insure vs. ensure
Some may use ensure and insure interchangeably, but the most accepted usage is:
- “Insure” refers to financial insurance policies
She wants to insure her home in case it “randomly” catches on fire.
- “Ensure” is used to mean “to make certain”
The law ensures that she will not get the money if it is determined that she set the fire.
When you need to be certain, ensure that you use ensure. If you are taking out an insurance policy, you are insuring yourself.
Further vs. Farther
This is another common mistake I see in content. Luckily, the rules for further vs. farther are straightforward:
- Farther refers to distance. It has the word far in it, which makes it easy to remember that this word is talking about actual, physical distance.
How much farther do I need to walk?
- Further is commonly used to talk about figurative or metaphorical distance.
Don’t help him, he’s just trying to further his own cause.
That’s that. Super easy to remember.
Less vs. fewer
This one is also easy to remember, so long as you know the rules:
- “Fewer” is used when discussing countable things like dollars, the measurement of flour in a bread recipe, or cats in your neighbor’s house.
She has three fewer cats than she used to.
- “Less” is used for singular mass nouns, like love, honesty, salt, etc.
He thinks the dish is too salty, but I think he should be less salty.
Than vs. then
We should have learned the difference between than and then in elementary school, that isn’t the case. Here are the rules for than vs. then:
- “Then” is used as either an adverb or an adjective. You’ll see if most commonly as an adverb. Then refers to time.
First, we watch the play, then it is time for dinner.
- “Than” is a conjunction used to compare two elements, people, objects, etc.
I would rather eat fish than chicken for supper.
Simple as that.
Speaking of which.
That vs. which
The rules for these two words are straightforward.
- If you don’t need the clause in the sentence you are connecting, you use “which.” When using which, ensure you use a comma before it.
The content was boring, which was disappointing to the marketers in the room.
- If you need the clause you are connecting for the sentence to make sense, use “that.”
He found the email that he needed to send right before the deadline.
Punctuation and Parenthesis
Where do you put the period if you finish your sentence with a set of parentheses?
The general rule is, you put the punctuation outside of the parenthesis because you want to be able to completely exclude the phrase in the parenthesis without losing the structure of the sentence.
You don’t necessarily need to use ABM (but leaders in the industry recommend it).
See how the period falls outside the parenthesis?
That is, unless, you want an entire sentence to be parenthetical (removable without affecting meaning), in which case the period would go inside the parenthesis.
This is the original sentence. (This one is parenthetical.)
These are some of the most common errors I see in writing. Did you recognize these mistakes in your own writing or in the writing of others?
Tell them about it!
Only, maybe not, unless it’s your job to do so (or your brand rep on the line). Even if you only take one lesson away from this article, I will have done my job. Let me know which tip helps you.
What common errors do you notice while reading content? Do you have any bad habits that lead to errors? What are they? Let us know what you think.