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The missing hyphen, the bad break and the stubborn text

2011 January 18
by Helen Keevy

The value of punctuation and proofreading

Blacker, more smear resistant text

Printer cartridge label

Even leading brands get it wrong. Sometimes a missing hyphen can be amusing or go unnoticed, but a missing hyphen combined with bad design can result in your message saying exactly the opposite of what you want it to.

When I picked up the printer cartridge with the pictured label – “Blacker, more smear resistant text” – I reread the packaging three times. I was intrigued by why a printer company thought more stubborn text that smears more easily should appeal to me. And the degree of the text’s stubbornness apparently also came with a footnote – that’s how resistant it was (or wasn’t).

No matter how big, or small your business, even a simple five-word message can cause you problems. But it’s simple to avoid a similar situation in your own marketing and I’m sure that HP could’ve too.

  • Get your designer and copywriter to co-operate. A green block on a black background tells me nothing about the product. The words are key – they need to be given the space to say what they need to, and if the space is not available then the words need to be rewritten so that they can say what they need to in the space available.
  • Get someone to read your designed material for sense. Not yourself, the designer, the copywriter or your marketing manager. You all know what the message is meant to say. A potential customer makes an excellent proofreader for sense.
  • Pay attention to punctuation. Those little dots and stripes really can make or break a message. This message might not have been totally saved, but it could’ve been thrown a lifebuoy in the form of a hyphen. A hyphen would’ve indicated that smear and resistant were a single concept. It would have shown the reader that smear was linked to the next word on the next line.  If you’re going to use compound adjectives, use hyphens in them to make meaning clearer and avoid a similar problem. (Compound adjectives are two or more words that you use in combination to describe something. You know it’s a compound adjective if, when you take away one of the words, the meaning changes i.e. resistant text or smear text is totally different to smear-resistant text.)

Never underestimate the saving power of punctuation and a good proofreader.

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