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Serial Killer: The Dissing of the Oxford Comma

by Meghan Casey

"There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken."
- Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves

In June, it was discovered that Oxford University had revised its style guide and pulled the plug on the use of the Oxford comma (otherwise known as the serial comma).

They issued the following guidelines:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used—especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’:

They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:

The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury

Now, to be clear, The Oxford Style Manual, which is governed by the autonomous Oxford University Press and for which the Oxford comma is named, has done no such thing. (Phew.)

What we said

At Brain Traffic (a.k.a. wordnerd central), Oxford University’s decision to drop the serial comma was cause for immediate debate. We had a very civil, yet heated, discussion about our reactions. Here are some choice quotes. (NOTE: You may or may not be able to see my personal biases come through here.)

The yays (i.e., the people who are right)

Melissa Rach:
To me, the serial comma is a courtesy. Is it required? No. Is it a nice thing to do for your users? Absolutely. Incidentally, in journalism school, I learned that early newspapers removed the serial comma (and the second space between sentences) to conserve column space. So, it wasn’t about best practices, it was about money and discourteous typesetters. Maybe I will write to Miss Manners for support.

Angie Halama:
When I was a copyeditor, the in-house style where I worked did not call for using the Oxford, or serial, comma. But, as the Oxford Style Guide entry on the comma points out, there are still times the serial comma is needed to “assist in the meaning of a sentence” or “help resolve ambiguity.” And these situations can be ambiguous in themselves. I worked with smart writers, so this wasn’t usually a big deal. But for many people, the intricacies of punctuation rules are confusing, frustrating, and ridiculous. That’s why copyeditors exist, but even they have to wade through these complexities. So why not simplify just one thing and make the serial comma the rule? Then everyone can save their energy for more important things, like knowing when to hyphenate a compound modifier. Which I know you’ve been really concerned about. As you should be.

Tenessa Gemelke:
My vote? CLARITY.

The serial comma rarely introduces confusion, but it often saves the day with its clear enumeration. For example, consider the following list of options:

Your sandwich choices are turkey, beef, ham, and Cheez Whiz.

The serial comma is essential here. Although wise people know Cheez Whiz tastes best as a singular sandwich ingredient, crazy people might try to eat it with ham. In most uses, the serial comma makes it clear that the final and penultimate items in a list are distinct from each other.

Of course, there are rare instances in which the serial comma causes trouble:

I dedicate this book to my father, Burt Reynolds, and America.

Is this book dedicated to three entities, or am I the secret love child of Burt Reynolds? In either case, it would be clearer to revise:

I dedicate this book to my father, Burt Reynolds and America.

I dedicate this book to my father (Burt Reynolds) and America.

I’m okay with ditching the serial comma when it’s problematic. But nine times out of ten, adding it makes for clearer reading. And that’s why I love it very, very much.

Kristina Halvorson:
I like the serial comma the way I like my punctuation outside of the quotation marks (which, by the way, makes me a sympathizer to the Brits and a traitorous American). They delineate; they contextualize. Generally speaking, I prefer extra-strength clarity: the serial comma singles out each item or phrase in your list so there's no confusion about what is grouped with (or attached to) what. Is it more cluttered? Yeah, sure. But it's worth the added clarity and meaning. And you know who agrees with me about commas? SHAKESPEARE, THAT'S WHO.

P.S. Next they're probably going to try to get rid of using ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS. WHAT?

Christine Anameier:
Damn them!

I like the serial comma because I feel it reduces ambiguity. Emily dislikes it because she feels it adds unneeded complexity. I don’t really care what other people do as long as I can continue to use it. That’s essentially my approach to all the style controversies at BT: live and let live.

Long live the serial comma.

Meghan Casey
Well, I have an online dating profile up on the internets. In it, I write, “I use the serial comma. Get used to it.” So, yeah, you get the picture.

The nays (i.e., the people who are wrong)

Emily Folstad:
Finally! Serial comma = unnecessary typographic clutter. Good riddance! Does this mean that Brain Traffic proofreaders will finally stop filling up my documents with that little sucker?

Julie Vollenweider:
I’m an informal and impatient gal. If I could write everything in shorthand or abbreviations, I would. Punctuation included. I’m in full support of Oxford University editing the serial comma right on out of the rules. Just wish the Oxford Style Manual would follow suit.

In conclusion

Clearly, the yays have it. According to me. (And, anyway, the Brain Traffic style guide says to use the serial comma. So there.)

But, don’t be glum, naysayers. At least there is an (overplayed) theme song for people who don’t give a **** about the Oxford comma. Take it away, Vampire Weekend …

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Posted in Style Guides and Such

Anatomy of a web content document

by Amy Wallace

For anyone who works with content, knowing how to format a web content document—or simply how to read it—is a crucial step in successful content creation. 

Why? Because without a clearly structured web content document, you run the risk of confusing your content reviewers, designers, and developers. And that confusion can lead to mistakes and frustration—stuff that could end up manifesting itself on your website.
Remember, a web content document isn’t just used by web writers, even though they are often the people who create and manage it.
Content reviewers use it to make copy edits and review messaging/tone. Designers use it to get the right copy into their design mock-ups. Developers use it to determine which copy appears as links on the actual website, and when to display dynamic content—for example, content that goes live on a specific date.
Here are a few of the formatting essentials you’ll need to cover to make sure your web content document (commonly called a “copy deck”) works for everyone on your marketing and/or creative team(s):
Links and buttons
You can count on link and/or button copy to be in just about every web content document you work with. As you probably know, this is the content that takes the user to a new page, cross-references relevant information, or helps a user complete a task.
You’ll need to choose a style for representing links and buttons in your document. Our standard is to format this copy as blue, underlined text. This tends to be the industry standard, too.
Read the Brain Traffic blog
Submit your request
If you do decide to format the links and buttons in your document in a different style, make sure it’s clear—and that everyone on your team knows what it is. Keep in mind that straying from the norm might confuse reviewers, designers, and developers used to working with the standard blue, underlined text style convention.
Regardless of the style you choose, follow the link and button text in your content document with its destination, which will likely be based on a site map or an external URL.
                Site map page ID:
Submit your request <link to 2.2>
External URL:
Read the Brain Traffic blog <link to http://blog.braintraffic.com/>
 Descriptive content labels
If your copy isn’t properly labeled within your content document, designers and developers working with the document can have a difficult time figuring out which copy goes where.
So, make sure to identify all the content pieces on each page. For example, put the label "Heading" above your page headline, "Body copy" above the main content, and "Right column copy" above content that lives on this part of the web page. Or use whatever labeling convention your agency or organization may already have established.
The key is making sure the labels are clear and easy to understand for everyone referencing your document.
Dynamic content
Content that may change or is dependent on functionality conditions is often referred to as "dynamic" content. For instance, if you’re working on a project that includes content that launches on different dates or should only be displayed based on certain requirements (maybe after a user logs in, for example), your document will need to specifically state when to display that content.
I recommend writing a short note to the developer above the specific piece of dynamic content. Describe the rule for displaying it—for example, "only display this content for California residents."
I write these notes in gray text, so it’s easy for developers to skim and find them throughout the content document.

<Note to developers: Display this link on 1/1/2010>
See our 2010 plans<link to 3.4>
Meta data
Those of you well-versed in web content know what meta data is, but let’s do a quick review. It refers to specific information developers need to make your content searchable.
Meta data includes:
·         Meta title (the title of the content page, which appears in your internet browser)
·         Meta description (a keyword-loaded description of the content page)
·         Meta keywords (words that refer to specific topics on the content page and make it easily findable)
A web writer or SEO expert is usually responsible for creating this information. Whether or not you create ityourself, you’ll need to include meta data in your content document. Which means you might also need to format this content, especially if you receive the meta data in a different type of document, like Microsoft Excel.
It’s a good idea to place the meta data in a separate section of your content  document—say, at the top of each page—so it’s clearly distinguished from the actual web copy.

Remember, the web content document you create isn’t just black-and-white. Sometimes it’s blue. And underlined. With notes. Because that’s what works.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Style Guides and Such, Uncategorized, Web Content, Web Writing

Links We Like

by Katie Dohman

Welcome to this week’s edition of links we like. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

In Defense of Readers
YES! Users want content, which means the design of readability is very important. This post on A List Apart takes a careful, insightful look at how users read. 

Make your Firefox work for you
We could all use some shortcuts, no?

Mind-mapping content strategy
It’s the first we’ve seen.

SEO and survival
We’d like to add that you also need a good content strategy.

How One Little Letter Can Sabotage Your Meaning
Editing still matters—spelling and grammar go a long way in helping readers understand your content. Even in the age of spell check, you must choose your words, and use your words, carefully.

Social media secrets
This ClickZ blog post, combined with a great MIMA event today by Jeff Rohrs from ExactTarget, are good reminders that you aren’t in control when it comes to social media. And that’s a good thing. It means people are interacting with your content. And, well, isn’t that the point?

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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Style Guides and Such, User Experience, Web Writing

Nitpicky Style Guide Item: The Internet is the internet

by Angie Halama

You may remember Kristina's post about style guides. Style guides make writers happy because they can follow the rules the first time, and they make businesses happy because the writers are speaking the language. And hammering out style details at the beginning saves needless time and expense to clean up these small details at the end of a large project. 

As such, we writers have regular discussions about troubling words or troublesome tasks of cleaning up misunderstandings about capitalization, em dashes, and the like. Here's one of the latest, when we officially decided not to initial cap “internet” anymore, whether it’s used as a noun or an adjective.

As I recall, the decision came about something like this:   

Angie 1.0 (me): Hey, everyone! Should we initial cap internet when we use it as a noun?

Angie 2.0: I don’t like capitalizing Internet. Or Web. Or InterWebs.

Katie: Yeah! I hate capping things.

Meghan: But didn’t we agree to initial cap “web” when we use it as a noun?

Angie 2.0: When did we agree to that?

Angie 1.0: Didn’t you get that email?

Meghan: Wired magazine doesn’t initial cap internet. And isn’t the rule about initial capping it in the process of changing?

Angie 2.0: And Wired is on the cutting edge of that change.

Angie 1.0: Right. Eventually nobody will initial cap internet.

Erin: Once the dictionaries catch up.

Meghan: Yes, let’s be on the cutting edge of change!

Everyone: Yeah!

Angie 1.0: Remember that movie The Net with Sandra Bullock?

Erin: Wasn’t that about identity theft on the internet?

Angie 2.0: Yeah, something like that. Do we have to initial cap “Net” when we use it as a noun?

Katie: We are NOT using “the Net.” Under any circumstances.

Everyone: YEAH!

A quick perusal of a few industry blogs revealed an inconsistent style on initial capping internet. So we turned to Wired for some guidance. In 2004, it declared that on its pages internet and web (and net) would not be initial capped anymore. We’re happy to officially join the trend—since we believe it will become a rule anyway. 

It’s definitely becoming a rule in our house style guide.

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Posted in Around the Office, Editorial Strategy, Style Guides and Such, Web Writing

Web Content Style Guides that Don’t Suck

by Kristina Halvorson

I've been writing content for websites for 11 years.

I've worked on well over two hundred websites, maybe close to three hundred.

And how many times have I had a style guide to reference for a web content project?


Of those six style guides, exactly one of them was of any real use to me. (Thank you, Medtronic.)

Our brands are constantly evolving. New products are launched, old ones retired. Services expand and shift. Trademarks, usage, legal requirements . . . for some of us, it's a full-time job just to keep up with them.

No wonder, then, that our web content is always a few steps behind. Inaccurate, irrelevant, outdated, disorganized.

How can you prevent crappy web content?
You know what I'm going to say, here. The most important thing you can do to ensure useful, usable online content is to create a web content strategy.

But the second most important thing? Invest in a web content style guide that's actually useful to the people who are creating, reviewing and approving your content.

In her indispensable guide to writing web content, Letting Go of the Words, Ginny Redish devotes an entire chapter to creating what she calls an "organic" web content style guide. Here are some highlights:

  • Start small. Let your style guide grow as issues and questions arise.
  • Don't repeat the entire universe. There are dozens of great style guides out there for grammar and usage. Pick one, and point to it in yours.
  • Focus on issues that keep coming up. Your web writers likely have the same questions over and over. Make a decision, record it, and move on.
  • Put someone in charge. The style guide isn't going to update itself. Make sure someone owns it and is accountable for its accuracy, every day.
  • Put it online. This is a no-brainer. It's your most accessible, flexible, most cost-efficient option. In fact, a wiki might be a perfect option for your organization. Just make sure it has an owner to oversee its evolution.

Don't forget voice and tone.
I'll add one more pointer:

  • Demonstrate your brand voice and tone. I'm always frustrated by brand guidelines that tell writers to be "authentic," "conversational," "professional," "friendly" . . . these words mean different things to different writers, and they're useless when you're simultaneously trying to communicate information that has to be helpful, compelling, actionable and scannable. So don't just describe voice and tone. Demonstrate it. Create a list of words to use, and words NOT to use. Show before and after edits. Point to other websites that capture the spirit of what you're after.

Creating and managing web content is a complicated enough undertaking. Simplify the process with a style guide people will actually use.

Want help creating a web content style guide? Brain Traffic's expert team of web editors and writers would love to pitch in. Contact us.

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Posted in Editorial Strategy, Style Guides and Such, Web Writing