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Bonus Online Tactics Column: The top-10 grammar and usage mistakes of press release writers

April 25, 2006

Copyright © 2006 PRSA.  All rights reserved.

By June Casagrande

You hunkered down at your computer and banged out a pretty darn good (if you do say so yourself) press release. It’s to-the-point and well-written. So the last thing you want is for people to look at your work and roll their eyes, or worse, laugh.
Press release writing is the most difficult type of business writing because it’s done for the toughest audience. Unlike stockholders reading corporate earnings reports or magazine subscribers reading advertising copy, many readers of press releases actually look for mistakes. They’re journalists and editors who’ve dedicated their lives to words for words’ sake. They’re people who might have considered going into PR themselves but dismissed the idea as selling out. So even the most well-written press release can fall on deaf ears if it contains small errors in grammar, punctuation and style.
How do you escape the ire of people dead-set on dismissing you? Don’t give them fodder. The errors most likely to undermine you and your message are easy to understand and, with a little effort, avoid. Here are the top 10.

1. The jilted comma. The following sentence contains a misperception so common that more people wrong than get it right. “Consolidated Computer Systems, Inc. will announce its earnings at the Nov. 21, 2006 meeting.” One of the comma’s main jobs is to set off parenthetical information. But just like parentheses it can only do so in pairs. “The company, a powerhouse in the industry, will open two new offices.” Notice how the extra information is sandwiched between two commas. It’s the same principle with the comma before “Inc.” or before the year in a date. The first comma needs a mate. Correct: “Consolidated Computer Systems, Inc., will announce its earnings at the Nov. 21, 2006, meeting.” By the way, the comma before “Inc.” is optional. But if you have one before, you need one after.

2. The wicked “which.” The difference between “that” and “which” can be vague until you get the hang of it. It’s basically the same principle as the commas just discussed. “Which” sets off parenthetical information -- stuff that can be lifted right out of the sentence without changing the sentence’s main point. “That” introduces information essential to the main point of the sentence. “The press conference, which will be held at 2 p.m., will include a question-and-answer session.” The time of the press conference may be crucial to the reader, but it's not crucial to the sentence’s main point which is, “The press conference will include a question-and-answer session.” Now consider: “A company that listens to its customers will succeed.” Try lifting out the information introduced by “that” and you lose your meaning: “A company will succeed.” This is what your AP Stylebook means when it says that “which” introduces “nonessential” or “nonrestrictive” clauses and “that” introduces “essential” and “restricted”  clauses. In the latter example, you use “that” because the point is that companies that listen to customers are the ones that succeed.

3. The bait-and-switch “whom.” Professional writers know that “whom” is an object and “who” is a subject. “Who is coming to the meeting?” versus, “Tell me whom you invited.” But these same professional writers are baffled when “who” or its variants doubles as both a subject and an object.
And, for those who hate or fear “whom,” here's some good news: Grammarians agree that “whom” and "whomever” are restricted solely to formal uses. Because formality is subjective, you can often opt to ditch “whom” entirely.

4. Just because “everyday” is in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the one you should use. “Everyday” is an adjective. “The store offers everyday values.” But it's never a noun. That’s why the same store offers values “every day.”

5. Brain-numbing clichés. There’s a reason so many press release writers use the term “underscores our commitment.” And there’s a reason so many write “win-win” and “synergies.” It’s because these terms can fit a press release writer’s message very nicely. And they have. So nicely, in fact, that they’ve lost all meaning. Journalists’ brains switch off the minute they come across one of these worn-out clichés. So it no longer matters whether “underscores our commitment” captures exactly what you want to say. You have to find another way to say it. “Demonstrates our commitment,” “proves our dedication,” “shows we mean business,” “illustrates our devotion” -- any variation will help keep your reader from slipping into a coma.

6. Danglers. What’s wrong with the following sentence? “Writing press releases, danglers are always a hazard to you.” Answer: According to this sentence, the dangler is the one doing the writing. Now look at this one, “Dedicated to his company’s goals, the CEO’s message was clear.” In that case, it was the message that was dedicated, not the CEO. Danglers occur when a verb in an introductory phrase contains an action not properly connected to the person or thing performing the action. Fix danglers by recasting the sentence. “Writing press releases, you should be aware that danglers are a hazard.” “Dedicated to his company’s goals, the CEO made his message clear.” Often, fixing these problems is as simple as making sure that the first word after the comma is the subject of the verb.

7. The “John and” conundrum. You would never say, “I'm glad you came to visit I.” You would never say, “He sent the e-mail to I.” You would never say, “The boss came to talk to I.” Yet the vast majority of people lose all grasp of object pronouns the minute another person comes into the mix. “I’m glad you came to visit John and I,” “He sent the e-mail to my mother and I,” and, “The boss wanted to talk to Jen and I” -- all three of these examples are wrong. In each case, it should have been “me.” If you’re unsure whether to write “John and I” or “John and me,” just try the same sentence without the “John and.” The answer instantly becomes clear.

8. Hyphen chaos. If you know the basic rule of hyphenation, if you know the most common exception to that rule, if you know that “co-worker” is hyphenated but “coordination” isn’t, you’re miles ahead of most writers. But you’re still a million miles away from getting it right every time. Hyphenation is the most anarchic area of punctuation, with countless exceptions to the exceptions and literally hundreds of different authorities setting down conflicting rules. Not even the most skilled professional copy editor truly knows hyphenation rules inside and out. And that’s good news. It means that, contrary to what your insecurities might tell you, you’re not alone. And it means that all you need is a basic understanding of hyphenation and one good style guide to be as hyphen savvy as the people reading your press release.
The basic rule is that hyphens are used to create compound modifiers. “Forward-looking statement” is hyphenated because “forward” and “looking” are working together to create a single adjective modifying the noun “statement.” A “piano-tuning technique” is hyphenated because “piano” and “tuning” are working together as an adjective modifying “technique.” That’s the rule, but be aware that professional copy editors disregard it whenever they judge that the hyphen is unnecessary. You can, too.
The most important exception to the compound modifier rule is for adverbs ending in “ly.” For this reason, “wholly owned subsidiary” should never be hyphenated. Nor should “happily married couple” or “previously undisclosed reports.”
Some words, such as water-skier, are always spelled with a hyphen. The only way to be sure is to check the dictionary.
Certain prefixes such as “co” usually take a hyphen. Other prefixes, such as “pre” normally do not take a hyphen unless they’re followed by the same vowel they end with: “preconceived” but “pre-existing.” There’s no way to commit all these rules to memory. Just keep a good style guide handy and know that help might be found under several different headings including “hyphenation,” “prefixes,” “suffixes,” “compounds” and alphabetic listings for each, such as “co.”

9. Prickly pairs. If a reporter writes “it’s” in place of “its,” “who’s” in place of “whose,” “their” in place of “they’re,” or “let’s” in place of “lets,” people assume it’s a careless mistake. But PR writers don’t get the same benefit of the doubt. Your readers are more likely to presume you didn’t know the difference in the first place. That’s why you should always double-check these homonyms. Remember: “It’s” is never possessive. The version with the apostrophe is always a contraction of “it” and “is” or “it” and “has.” The possessive, “The company announced its new product,” never takes an apostrophe.

10. Possessives ending in “s.” When it comes to making possessives of words ending in “s,” newspapers have different rules than books. Stick to Associated Press style and don't worry if you notice a book that does it differently. AP’s rules are pretty straightforward: For common nouns, such as “boss,” add an apostrophe and an “s.” But for proper names, such as James, just add the apostrophe. “The boss’s computer was being upgraded, so he worked from James’ desk.” There's a tricky exception. If the word that follows the possessive also happens to begin with an s, just use the apostrophe. “The boss’ stapler is missing.”

June Casagrande is a journalist and former Business Wire editor. She’s author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite,” which was released on March 28.


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