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Beware of Tagline-Killing Quotation Marks

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Tips for Taglines

Murder by Punctuation

Driving down I-88 the other day, I spotted a service van with this tagline across the back doors -

Industrial Spray Painting You Can “Trust”

Not good. The author doesn’t realize that putting a word or phrase in quotation marks this way indicates sarcasm. For emphasis – which is what I assume the author was shooting for – use italics. I’ll chart it out:

  1. Industrial Spray Painting You Can Trust means industrial spray painting you can trust.
  2. Industrial Spray Painting You Can Trust means industrial spray painting you can really trust.
  3. Industrial Spray Painting You Can “Trust” means industrial spray painting you can’t trust.

What would happen if big brands fell victim to tagline-killing quotation marks?

  • Tastes “great,” less filling. Result: Miller Lite goes the way of the Edsel.
  • You’re in “good hands” with Allstate. Result: Policyholders run for their lives.
  • Fly the “friendly” skies. Result: United wins a truth in advertising award.

Of course, the state of public education being what it is, there’s a good chance that 90% of U.S. consumers wouldn’t notice bungled punctuation in a tagline.

Does Punctuation Matter?

What do you think: does punctuation matter in a world of emoticons, text message shorthand, and acronyms?

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21 Responses to Beware of Tagline-Killing Quotation Marks

  1. Punctuation matters more than ever.

    However, I do believe less is better.

    Maybe the copywriter had a bad experience with the spray painter and the sign was actually accurate?
    .-= Fred H Schlegel’s last blog ..What are you selling? =-.

  2. Who might have guessed that you should shy away from quotation marks. Thanks for a great post, Brad.
    .-= Robyn McMaster’s last blog ..Who is your neighbor and why should you care? =-.

  3. Sort of reminds me of the book titled “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” where one comma changes the whole message. Same here.

    Driving on the interstate provides such a wealth of blog post fodder, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for a great post, as usual!

    • Heidi, Yes, the Illinois Tollway System offers a wealth of ideas for content marketing topics. And, with this year’s construction, there’s ample time to study these examples in depth! If I can only remember to carry my camera, I could do a month’s worth on billboards alone. :)
      .-= Brad Shorr’s last blog ..Beware of Tagline-Killing Quotation Marks =-.

  4. Brad,

    Yes, punctuation does matter! There are plenty of literate and grammar savvy consumers out there who know the implication the quotation marks represent. Meanwhile, the brand owners continue to unwittingly erode their brands to their detriment. Personally, I do wonder if the owners can’t get their copy right, can they get anything right? We all know the adage about the importance of first impressions. On a legal note, errors like these also can have very unwelcome consequences in the world of trademark law and result in weakened, or loss of, trademark rights.


    • Hi Brenda, Nice to hear from you! It would be interesting to hear more about how these punctuation issues affect trademark rights – that’s definitely an angle I haven’t thought about at all. The point you make about first impressions is of vast important. Most consumers are looking for something – anything – to filter a message out. It’s truly reckless to let something as simple as punctuation to become that thing.
      .-= Brad Shorr’s last blog ..Beware of Tagline-Killing Quotation Marks =-.

  5. This mistake is so prevalent, Brad, and it really does make me feel sorry (and a bit embarrassed) for the company that makes this type of error. I suppose it’s a good thing for these companies that most people aren’t grammatical/punctuation experts. But, for those who know the nuances of correct usage, it really can hurt a company’s credibility.

    Many businesspeople don’t realize how important it is to have a pro look over their content before they put it out there for all the world to see. It’s not so much the fact that their language skills are weak that presents a problem. It’s that they don’t recognize the fact and locate someone with strong language skills to tweak their content and make sure it’s up to snuff!

    • Hi Jeanne, I think you answer your own question about why companies don’t have a professional check their copy before publishing – they don’t realize there’s anything to check! I doubt if the spray paint company huddled to discuss whether they should put trust in quotation marks. It probably never occurred to them that it was an issue, let alone an issue that might matter to a potential customer.
      .-= Brad Shorr’s last blog ..Beware of Tagline-Killing Quotation Marks =-.

      • You’re so right, Brad! They obviously didn’t recognize their error. Yet, I’d venture to say that they probably do realize that grammar and punctuation aren’t their strongest suit, which should have made them cautious enough to give their tagline a professional once-over.

        A company’s image is so important that it really is best to put the finished product in the hands of a pro. Doing that doesn’t even always require money. Often a businessperson knows someone who’s a great editor and who wouldn’t mind taking a look at no charge. With something as short as this tagline, it would take very little time and effort to catch the error–but what a difference it would make to the company’s image!

  6. Robin Dickinson

    Thank you, Brad. Punchy and useful – just how I like it.

    What about emphasis online?

    For example:

    Industrial Spray Painting *You* Can Trust meaning, even you with your high standards will be able to trust these people.

    Best, Robin :)

  7. Punctuation and grammar is essential, however, not everyone has best punctuation and grammar skills. The mistake on the van is quite a big mistake, and could cost them a lot of business. This does get you to think of how many people would notice the mistake and actually read it as a sarcasm. It would not surprise me if people didn’t notice it. After finishing school, I find that if a persons profession doesn’t require them to write on a regular basis, then many people do forget about grammar and punctuation. Just like you might forget how to speak french when you learnt it at school.
    .-= Mandeep Khunkhuna’s last blog ..Website Design Using Random CSS =-.

    • This is true, Mandeep. It’s a good argument for picking up a book instead of a smart phone, wouldn’t you say?
      .-= Brad Shorr’s last blog ..Beware of Tagline-Killing Quotation Marks =-.

      • Yes of course, reading is a great way to keep up that standard to grammar and punctuation that we have learnt. Grammar and punctuation is key part of language that I feel should never fade. If people are however, forgetting punctuation and grammar, does that mean that we could be moving into a new era of language? Society is ever changing and so is language. For example, the Gujarati language has changed and adapted many times since the first Sanskrit (classic) version. Even the English language has evolved and now there are many versions depending on which country you live in. Is is just society being lazy or are we just adapting?
        .-= Mandeep Khunkhuna’s last blog ..Website Design Using Random CSS =-.

        • Maybe a little of both – adapting and laziness. Nobody wants to type excess characters in a text message. However, texting is a very limited form of communication. Its conventions don’t carry over very well. But it’s inevitable that these conventions will spill over and to the extent they do, I think it represents regression rather than progress in our language.
          .-= Brad Shorr’s last blog ..Beware of Tagline-Killing Quotation Marks =-.

  8. It makes me sad to see how much grammar is taking a back seat. As a parent of a teen, I hear stories of how kids don’t think they should lose points on a writing assignment because of grammar or spelling. I get the texting requires abbreviation, but when we are writing a formal document and even on our blogs for the most part, we need to be concerned about these things. They show, whether we mean them to or not, our level of intelligence. When I see errors that are clearly not typos it does affect my impression of that person. It’s a simple fact. I can overlook typos a little because we all make them, no matter how hard we try, but blatant grammatical and spelling errors are frustrating.
    .-= Debbie Yost’s last blog ..Teamwork =-.

    • Debbie, It seems inevitable that grammar will continue to be devalued, because of the popularity of communication media where it doesn’t matter. I see the attitude creeping into media where it does matter, and that is a good reason for concern. We should do the reverse and apply grammatical thinking to texting, etc. If we ignore those rules for the sake of convenience we should at least know we’re doing it. Thanks for your comment.
      .-= Brad Shorr’s last blog ..Writer’s Digest of Web Readability Tools – What they Are, How they Work =-.

  9. Hi Brad-
    What are your thoughts re: quotations for the entire tagline? (also italicized+

    “Helping Restaurants Cater”

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