Every few years, the way we use grammar subtly changes. But then, that’s been the case throughout history.
Language is always changing, evolving to fit our modern needs and sensibilities. And the birth of the Internet has sped up this evolution big time.
So, how does this affect your B2B writing? Are Oxford commas passé? Should you really never start a sentence with a conjunction? And does the em dash still pack the same punch as in 2018?
For a digestible overview of how punctuation has changed over time, juicy reactions to it then and now, and extra-valuable insight on how to keep a long-term mindset about the role of text-based content in your marketing strategy, read on.
Part style guide and part historically-inflected usage manual, we’re getting into the nitty gritty of our punctuated present (with a dash of grammar love for good measure).
7 slightly bendy grammar rules for B2B brands:
- Start sentences with conjunctions
- End them with prepositions
- Take calculated risks
- Don’t be afraid of clichés
- Cut your paragraphs down
- Know your red-flag grammar mistakes
- Use a relaxed tone
The power of punctuation: a brief history
There once was a pen. That pen met paper and BOOM…written language. 💥
Okay…so maybe it’s not that simple. But how did those dots, dashes, and strokes that punctuate our writing come to be? And how did they evolve?
We have Aristophanes, an ancient librarian, to thank for the invention of punctuation. While working in the Library of Alexandria (yes, that one), he got sick and tired of trudging through hundreds of thousands of scrolls withnopunctuationorspaces and no distinction between LoWercAsE and cApiTaL letters.
Early democracies like Greece valued speech-making over writing, so they didn’t pay too much attention to issues like punctuation or spacing. But Aristophanes, who spent all day knee-deep in scrolls that looked like alphabet soup, knew there had to be a better way.
Aristophanes planted the punctuation seed with a revolutionary annotation system. Called the periodos, comma, and colon (sounds familiar, right?), Aristophanes used a series of ink dots placed in the middle, bottom, or top of each line to indicate pauses between words.
Even though Aristophanes’ system was more of a writing hack rather than a codified system of grammatical boundaries, his work laid the groundwork for punctuation as we know it.
After the classical empires fell and Christianity swept across Europe, punctuation came of age, too. While pagans passed down their history by word of mouth, Christians preferred to write their gospels, psalms, and stories down on paper, using decorative letters, paragraph marks, and rudimentary punctuation to make the written gospel easier to read.
And this new way of writing caught on like wildfire thanks to Isidore of Seville. Isidore updated Aristophanes’ punctuation system, rearranging the dots in order of height to convey long (·), medium (·), and short (.) pauses respectively. He also connected these little dots with grammatical meaning for the first time, and the comma and the period were born. (Or subdistinctio and distinctio finalis if you’re getting historical about it).
As more people adopted this writing style, little tweaks and changes created the predecessors to the punctuation marks we know and love today. From Boncompagno da Signa’s invention of the slash to Gregorian chanters’ invention of the medieval semicolon (or the punctus versus if you’re getting technical), the written word continued to evolve and change throughout the centuries. ✍🏻
But it wasn’t until the invention of the printing press that the symbols we use today were actually codified. The publication and printing press-reproduction of Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible effectively halted our punctuation progress, freezing our commas and periods in ink.
And not much has changed…until now! Computers are more prevalent than printing presses ever were, and we’re breathing new life into punctuation while click-clacking away at our keyboards. From emojis to passive-aggressive periods, the Internet has revitalized punctuation.
Grammar mechanics aren’t dead — they’re just waiting for the next great technological advancement. And now that it’s here, how are we going to redefine writing for the modern era of B2B writing? Which grammatical conventions can stay and which should we ditch?
Commas and colons and em dashes, oh my!
When you learn to dot your i’s, cross your t’s, and capitalize proper nouns in elementary grammar classes, it feels like those rules are carved in stone. But what your English teachers don’t always tell you is that language is constantly changing and evolving to meet the needs of the people who use it.
And these days, language rules are shifting to match digital consumption habits. B2B marketers like us need to keep up, and sometimes that means ditching the grammar rulebook. But how?
Ready to break some grammar rules (while still coming across as an expert)?
Check out these best practices:
1. Kick it off with conjunctions
No matter what your middle school grammar textbook says, don’t be afraid to start a sentence with a conjunction. Not only can it help break up long lines of text, it can also generate a sense of excitement and urgency. And that’s invaluable!
By chopping up long sentences into easy-to-read pieces, you can make your marketing copy more approachable and add emphasis to important points.
Example: Social media marketing is important. But if you don’t have strong content to back it up, it takes the oomph out of your Insta post. And that’s the truth.
2. Pepper in tail-end prepositions
If you’re feeling a little wild, try ending your sentence with a preposition!
Many of our modern grammar rules made their way over from ancient Latin. And it only makes sense that doing as the ancient Romans did doesn’t necessarily work for us anymore. So don’t be afraid to throw a preposition at the end of your sentence, especially if it makes it flow more smoothly.
Take these two lines of copy as an example:
Which of these content marketing goals does your agency aspire to?
To which of these content marketing goals does your agency aspire?
Placing the preposition at the end of your sentence can make it sound more conversational. And good B2B writing is all about thought leadership and generating a dialogue (or at least the feeling of one) with your customers. So as the web moves towards mimicking real conversation in virtual spaces, it’s ok to match that energy in your B2B writing.
3. Take calculated risks
Take grammar and punctuation risks. But make sure they’re intentional.
It’s more than ok to break punctuation rules in B2B writing, but make your errors overt enough to seem purposeful. Making stylistic and bold choices often works in your favor, but making small punctuation mistakes (like comma splices) seems careless rather than punchy.
So whether you type an important word in ALL CAPS or split your infinitive for added effect, just make sure you’re coming off as innovative rather than ignorant. B2B writing prizes scannability, so if messing around with capitalization or adding some extra ellipses makes your copy easier to read…do it!
Example: Take calculated risks (LIKE THIS) to make your writing snappy and ~visually stimulating~.*
* = But watch out for comma splices, misspelled words, and other mistakes that make you seem silly instead of witty.
4. Don’t be afraid of clichés
But only if they’re helpful. Don’t write a blog so chock-full of idioms that readers can’t find the main point. But also don’t be afraid to use common phrases that pack a punch. If deployed effectively, clichés can help you connect with your reader, building camaraderie.
That’s why colloquialisms are also valuable tools in your B2B toolbox. Forget what your teachers taught you about only using elevated language – if you want to meaningfully connect with your reader, you need to speak their language. And that language is approachable and down-to-earth, not lofty and jargon-y.
For example, if you’re writing about generating inbound leads and decreasing churn rate, make sure that you take the time to clarify. Help your reader out by adding a colloquial phrase like “getting discovered online” or “encouraging customers to stick around” to clear the air and make your meaning crystal clear.
Example: Think outside of the box when it comes to B2B writing, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to get people reading.
5. Cut your paragraphs down to size (and use lots of periods)
Your teachers probably taught you to write paragraphs with about 3-5 sentences in them. But if you can make your point in just one or two sentences, do it.
Sentence-long paragraphs make your writing more impactful, keeping your key points from getting buried under a mountain of words.
Cutting your paragraphs down to size also makes them more scannable, giving readers a brain break between paragraphs.
This means making frequent use of everyone’s favorite punctuation mark: the period.
Love it. Use it often. Because who’s ever heard of a “period splice”?
Psst! The examples for this one were hidden in the explanation itself. You caught ‘em, right?
6. Know your red-flag grammar mistakes 🚩
Grammar rules exist to help writers make their messages clear and meaningful. And punctuation helps writers avoid ambiguity while also showing our identity as educated (and credible) sources.
So how can you stay both credible and cutting-edge when it comes to grammatical risk-taking?
Some grammar rules are worth breaking if they create a better reading experience. But not all grammar mishaps are innovative. Some are just plain awkward.
While placing prepositions at the end and conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence can make your writing conversational and punchy, other grammatical mistakes can make us sound incompetent. And that damages credibility. So while you obviously shouldn’t use the wrong form of their/there/they’re or to/two/too, what other grammar mistakes should you steer clear of?
In short, these are the repeat offenders you definitely want to avoid:
- Comma splices
- Janky quotation marks
- Wonky semicolons
- Dangling modifiers
Now here’s an example of what not to do (because it was so painful to write…):
When your ready too learn how 💻 effect the development of punctuation; read on.
7. Tone it down when necessary
No matter how much we love to innovate, “proper” punctuation and standard grammar rules still have a place in the B2B lexicon, especially when it comes to more traditional formats like whitepapers, brochures, RFPs, business emails, and other tried-and-true communication forms.
So keep it standard for those formats and save the fun for less stodgy mediums.
Looking for top-notch content with pitch-perfect punctuation?
Meet Pointed. We’re a done-for-you copywriting agency that creates high-quality content every time. Whether you’re pro or anti-Oxford comma, we take note of your preferences with always-on-target messaging.
If you’re ready to take the plunge and elevate your B2B brand messaging, we’ve got your back. Schedule a chat with our experts today!
Avery is a freelance copywriter and web content expert. When she’s not writing, she’s probably at an estate sale on the hunt for vintage clothing or updating her Spotify playlists. Based in New Orleans, Avery is passionate about writing approachable content that is engaging and well-researched!