March 7, 2018


I sat down with several business people last week to discuss grammar and punctuation as part of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s Coffee & Conversation series. We spent an hour discussing the proper use of a semicolon and colon, what punctuation goes inside quotation marks and what punctuation goes outside, and what an ellipse is and how it’s used. We talked about

commas and stylebooks and style guides. We

talked about capitalization, when to italicize, and

email etiquette.


It was a lively discussion, with plenty of laughs.

As one businessman said after we exhausted our

hour together, we easily could have talked for

another hour—and still not have skimmed the

surface. One participant was so overwhelmed,

she admittedly stopped taking notes. Her email

to me after the event contained many punctuation

errors, but it communicated her thoughts well.


“I was surprised at all the questions,” another

businesswoman said later. “Now I don’t feel bad

about not knowing what I don’t know.”

Yes, there are some hard and fast rules in

American English most people do not know. For

example, periods and commas always go inside

quotation marks. Colons and semicolons always

go outside. Question marks and exclamation marks go inside if they are part of the quoted material and outside if they are not. Those are hard and fast rules.

Other hard and fast rules are erroneous. How many were taught ‘”I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’”? Literally (and I mean literally in the literal sense), thousands of words break that rule.

Other rules are a matter of style, which are covered in stylebooks (Associated Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.) and style guides (an organization’s preferred style). Whether or not you adhere to the Oxford comma, which is a comma before a conjunction (e.g., and, but, or) in a list of three or more within a sentence, is a matter of style. The AP Stylebook says not to use them unless eliminating them would create confusion. Chicago says to use them in every instance. The Greater Springfield Chamber’s style guide follows AP practice. The Consistent Voice Communications (CVC) Style Guide says to use it in any copy not being distributed to the media, but to follow AP style when communicating with news outlets.

The chamber style guide also states the chamber should never be stated as the Springfield Chamber because it encompasses other communities too, such as Burke, Franconia, and Kingstowne. It also says to capitalize the stand-alone word “chamber” when referring to the Greater Springfield Chamber. You can guess the CVC Style Guide’s preference is otherwise on the latter matter.

If your organization is putting out professional material, you should hire CVC or another reputable company to ensure the material follows the hard and fast communications rules—and has the flow and tone you need to make an impact. But every organization should have a style guide to promote consistency in communications. For example, does your company prefer 703-555-5555 or the more modern 703.555.5555? Does your organization perform a lot of overseas work, so you always want your number to carry the international call designation—011-703-555-5555? For time designations, is your company’s style to use pm, PM, or p.m.? Is 12 p.m. correct for noon, or should noon always be noon?

These and many other questions are answered by a style guide. You can download ours for free and use it as a template to build your own. Or, you can contact us about helping you to create one that reflects your organization’s particular needs. Or download ours for free and contact us. Whatever works best for you.

And, when you want to ensure you follow the hard and fast rules, call us.

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Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.​​

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I Went for Coffee and an Oxford Comma Fell Out