This refresher covers the basics of English-language grammar, logic and syntax from the editing core skills module.
Good prose style is how we ensure the words we use don’t get in the way of the message we’re trying to convey. In this guide, we’ll dive into some key principles you can follow to make your writing clear, precise and consistent with other copywriters and copy editors on your projects.
What follows is also covered by the J+ Community style guide – so make sure to check that for even more handy usage tips.
Active vs passive voice
Hyphens and en dashes
Colons and semicolons
False connections and false dependencies
Clarity and impact
Showing rather than telling
Active vs passive voice
The active voice enables you to get to the point faster, trimming unnecessary words. It shapes the emphasis of a sentence, so your reader is in no doubt about what’s most important, giving your sentences a sense of authority.
There are two tests you can do to identify the passive voice:
Is the object before the subject? The subject is the actor in a sentence, and the object is the thing that’s being acted upon. When the object features first, you’re using the passive.
Are you using the word ‘by’? If so, it implies that the object is passively being acted upon by the subject.
All the content we produce is created by our community of talented copywriters and copy editors.
Here, the object – ‘the content’ – comes first, and the subject – ‘our community of talented copywriters and copy editors’ – comes second.
And there’s also a ‘by’ in the sentence, which is a dead giveaway.
Here it is edited to be active and authoritative, and concise:
Our community of talented copywriters and copy editors create all the content we produce.
The children were frightened by the popping balloons.
Here, the balloons are the subject, as they’re doing something that affects the children, who are the object. And again, ‘by’ indicates that something isn’t right.
Here it is fixed:
The popping balloons frightened the children.
Hyphens and dashes
Hyphens and dashes are crucial for giving your sentences clarity of meaning.
Hyphens are the shortest, en dashes are longer and em dashes are longer still. Depending on the font, this is sometimes more obvious than others – the difference is clear on J+ Scribe.
When to use hyphens vs. dashes
Hyphens connect words, like mother-in-law and two-tonne.
Dashes connect clauses, either when adding new information parenthetically or as an aside.
Which dash should I use?
En dashes are used for UK English. In US English, en and em dashes are acceptable and the choice depends on the client’s style guide – they should always be used consistently.
Complex and compound adjectives will usually be hyphenated, and some nouns and verbs are too. Always check the dictionary when dealing with compound words.
Adverbs should never be hyphenated. This can be a little tricky, as adverbs and adjectives look similar. The difference is this: adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Adverbs often end in an -ly, so if a word ends in -ly it should not be hyphenated.
The smooth running system is an improvement on the previous software.
Is this referring to a system that runs smoothly, or a running system that happens to be smooth? Introducing a hyphen clears it up.
The smooth-running system is an improvement on the previous software.
Colons & semicolons
Colons point forward, and they stand in place of ‘comma namely’ in sentences.
Semicolons, on the other hand, separate two standalone clauses that are closely linked, and can replace ‘comma and’ between two such clauses. A good rule of thumb for semicolons is that they’re stronger than commas, but weaker than full stops.
This sentence needs a colon:
We have three colours, namely red, orange and pink.
Here it is fixed:
We have three colours: red, orange and pink.
Here’s a sentence that could use a semicolon, as the comma doesn’t create a strong enough division between these two standalone clauses.
Fred loves tennis, Maria prefers hockey.
Here is it fixed:
Fred loves tennis; Maria prefers hockey.
In most cases, when referring to brands, companies or organisations, it’s correct to use the singular. This is because the noun is acting as a unified being.
However, there are some circumstances in which it’s correct to use the plural. This works when the noun has people acting as individuals within it.
The council have revealed their plans for a new concert hall.
This sentence uses the plural when it should use the singular. The council is a unified body that acts like one when it reveals its new plans. Here it is fixed:
The council has revealed its plans for a new concert hall.
And it’s the same for brands and businesses.
Topshop is a high street brand.
Louis Vuitton has brought out its latest collection.
Tesco wants to learn about its customers.
Here’s an example of a collective noun used in the singular, when it ought to be in the plural.
The band loves crowd surfing at its gigs.
‘The band’ is a single unit, but it’s made up of individuals that all act differently according to how they feel. Maybe one or two members of the band love crowd surfing, but the others don’t. Here it is fixed:
The band love crowd surfing at their gigs.
Here are some more examples of when you might like to use the plural.
The Smith family are going to France in their car
The class like playing football in their break
The team are celebrating their victory
False connections & false dependencies
False connections are created when a sentence implies a relationship between two things and that relationship doesn’t exist. This tends to happen when two ideas are not separated by a strong enough semantic division.
False connection example:
Founded in 1964, Topshop recreates runway looks for the high street.
This implies that the fact Topshop was founded in 1964 is somehow connected to the type of clothing it creates now, and that’s simply untrue. By moving the subject to the start of the sentence and clearly separating the past from the present, we get rid of the false connection. Here it is fixed:
Topshop was founded in 1964, and today it’s famous for bringing runway looks to the high street.
False dependencies imply a dependency that doesn’t exist. This is usually down to using the wrong conjunctions - particularly ‘if’. They can often be corrected by introducing an imperative such as ‘check out’ or ‘browse’.
False dependency example:
This sentence implies that Topshop having runway-ready styles is dependent on the reader loving denim. This is clearly untrue because if the reader doesn’t love denim, for whatever reason, Topshop will continue selling its current line of stock.
If you love denim, Topshop sells a range of runway-ready styles to choose from.
Here it is fixed:
If you love denim, check out Topshop’s range of runway-ready styles.
Clarity & impact
Concision is all about quality over quantity. Every single word, sentence and idea should be working just as hard as the rest. It’s all about finding the shortest way to say something without losing any of its meaning and sticking to the brand tone of voice.
The editing workflow will be optimised by the content team to ensure we are enabling ourselves to produce the best, high-quality content at a greater scale.
The first thing to notice is that the sentence is in the passive voice. This on its own adds in three of four unnecessary words, like the giveaway word ‘by’, and others like ‘will be’.
Next, look out for phrases that are longer than they need to be. ‘We are enabling ourselves’ essentially means, ‘we are’. ‘Enabling ourselves’ don’t bring any new meaning, and they add in five syllables that the sentence could do without.
Third, look for excessive use of adjectives. Here, ‘the best’ already implies ‘high-quality’, so the latter can be dropped without losing anything. And similarly, the word ‘scale’ includes the idea of ‘greater’ already, so there’s no need to repeat it.
Here’s the streamlined, active version:
The content team will improve the editing workflow to ensure we can produce high-quality content at scale.
Sentence length is also an important consideration when you’re aiming for clarity and concision. Often, when sentences are multiple clauses long, readers can find the narrative hard to follow and get confused.
Choosing the right sentence length is all about knowing when to stop. Two to three clauses is plenty. If you’re using more, simply find a natural place to chop it in half.
Sentence length example:
The economists advised against passing the bill in their letter, stating that it would be bad for trade deals and that this would impact on the lives of ordinary Americans.
It’s long, and it’s lacking emphasis and rhythm too. Adding in a full stop gives it clarity of meaning, and makes it much simpler to read. Here it is fixed:
The economists advised against passing the bill in their letter. They stated that it would be bad for trade deals, ultimately impacting the lives of ordinary Americans.
Showing rather than telling
A handy rule for adjectives is to be as specific as you can. If you allow too many vague adjectives like ‘good’, ‘great’ and ‘beautiful’ to creep into your copy, your reader will end up feeling like they haven’t learned anything about the product. The same goes for phrases like ‘perfectly matches your outfit’ and ‘ideal for whatever adventures your weekend entails’. In attempting to cover all eventualities, they end up saying very little.
The problem with these words and phrases is that they are evaluative rather than descriptive. If we want our copy to be useful, we need to do more than insist a product is good: we need to demonstrate why. In other words, we need to show rather than tell. Customers don’t like overbearing brands telling them what to think – they’d much rather be given the information they need to make an informed decision.
Here’s an example. Which of these descriptions of a landscape paints a clearer picture in your mind?
A stunningly beautiful scene with dazzling highlights.
A rugged location with an array of dramatic peaks, where dazzling white snow contrasts with the azure sky.
In the second sentence, we’re not telling the reader that the landscape is beautiful; we’re merely describing it in a skilful way and inviting them to draw that conclusion themselves. It’s a much more empowering (and less patronising) way to get the message across.
We can apply the same idea to fashion copywriting. Here, a good starting point is to examine the details of each item and figure out ways to bring them to life. That way, we can demonstrate the value of the product and show the reader why they should care. It’s all about being specific. We can talk about things like:
Prints and patterns
Brands or makers
Styles or cuts
In practice, that looks like this:
Made from cosy wool, this jumper is sure to keep the winter chills at bay.
The lively polka dot print does wonders when you need to break up an otherwise monochrome look.
In this versatile jacket, you can seamlessly transition from high-pressure meetings to cocktails in a basement bar.