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Copywriting Basics: Giving Grammar a Break

Copywriting doesn't necessarily demand the strictest observance to formal English grammar. Because your objective is to build an empathetic rapport with your readers, you want to write the way they speak. Depending on the circumstances and your intended audience, using slang, sentence fragments, contractions, colloquialisms, and so on is perfectly acceptable. Yet you still want to maintain credibility, so not everything goes. When writing copy, you're walking a fine line between informality and incomprehensibility.

What your English teacher was wrong about

You've hunkered down to write, and man, the juices are flowing. One good idea just follows another. But just as you start to really smoke, a little demon appears on your shoulder: a tiny woman wearing a shapeless gray dress, with wire-rimmed glasses on her nose and a yardstick in her hand. It's your old English teacher! She's come back to haunt you, to challenge your grammar. Suddenly, inspiration has packed its bags without leaving a forwarding address. Your writing had ground to a halt.

Fortunately, many times you can ignore that little dowdy demon on your shoulder. These are just a few of the times when you can tell her to buzz off.

Using sentence fragments

According to the rules, "real" sentences must have complete subject-verb-object constructions; anything less is a "fragment" that must be rejected. Nonsense. As long as your fragments clearly communicate complete thoughts, they can be a perfectly acceptable part of your rhetorical tool chest for most assignments. When they're used thoughtfully, short fragments create pauses that bracket your ideas for greater emphasis. When they're used arbitrarily, they create confusion and disturb the rhythm of your writing.

  • Good use of fragments:
    Your renewed subscription to EZ Rider Reader gives you the low-down on what's up in custom bodies. The hippest highways and byways. Tips and secrets for boss details. And inside visits to the baddest shops and studios around. Why miss out? Renew today.
  • Weak use of fragments:
    You know it's time. To renew your subscription. Order today. And get all the dope on what's happening in your neck of the woods. And in the 'hoods. Across the country.

Ending sentences with prepositions

There are still some goose-stepping grammarians who insist that you can't end sentences with prepositions. They don't know what they're talking about. When it comes to this issue, they don't have a leg to stand on. Otherwise, this sentence would have to read, "They don't know the issues about which they are talking," or "They don't have a leg upon which to stand."

Yes, ending sentences with prepositions is perfectly acceptable, as long as your intended meaning is clear and the preposition isn't redundant. For example, you might ask, "Where are you going?" but not, "Where are you going to?"

Starting sentences with "and" or "but"

Some people say you can never begin a sentence with the conjunctions "and" or "but." They're wrong. And plenty of grammar authorities agree. Sometimes leading with "and" or "but" is the most effective way to make an effective transition. (Yet you don't want to overdo it.)

Using a thesaurus

The bane of readers everywhere, the thesaurus encourages writers to apply gratuitously overblown rhetoric (like this) instead of plain language (like that). You're better off using your thesaurus as a doorstop than a writing aid. With rare exceptions, short, simple words are best. Be a straight talker, not a pompous interlocutor ("windbag").

Using contractions and slang

Who says you can't use contractions? And dude, slang can be okay, too — as long as you're using the right slang with the right audience. When in Rome, speak as the Romans do. Use rad slang with the surf set, and use standard English with the business crowd. A word of caution, however: If you can't speak an insider's lingo with spot-on accuracy, don't even try. Just use simple, conversational English.

What your English teacher was right about

Oddly enough, English teachers aren't always wrong. Really. In fact, some of what they taught you (or tried to teach you) can help you be a more effective copywriter.

Using active versus passive language

In the active voice, the subject takes action. In "Caesar conquered Gall," the subject, "Caesar," is the agent of the action, "conquered." This sentence was written in the passive voice: "Gall was conquered by Caesar." The agent of the action now becomes buried in the predicate.

As a grammatical issue, the passive voice isn't necessarily wrong. But in most cases it's weaker, less emphatic writing. When you aim to encourage action, the passive voice undermines your impact. You want to make your products and services the agents of beneficial action in your prospects' lives. Think, "This product (subject) makes (verb) this happen (object)," not "This consequence was caused by this product."

Applying correct spelling and punctuation

You can get away with sentence fragments and slang, but incorrect spelling and punctuation undermine your credibility, making your company look stupid and eroding confidence in your professionalism.

Don't proofread your own work. Yes, of course you should go over everything you write and make corrections before submitting your writing. In fact, reading your work out loud is a terrific way to uncover some typos, grammatical errors, and perhaps some misjudgments in rhythm and tone. But the writer's review should never be the final check before printing and publication. Writers are too close to their own work, and they'll either replicate their errors in the editing process or "read" into their review what they thought they wrote, instead of what's actually on the page. If you can, have a professional proofreader review your work. At the very least, have someone with excellent English language skills review it.

Distrusting your word processor's spelling and grammar checkers

Don't trust spelling and grammar checkers. Spelling checkers can't interpret the context of your word choices, so they can't, for example, distinguish among the correct uses of "there," "they're," or "their," or "it's" and "its." And the grammar checkers are notoriously incapable of interpreting complex sentences, often returning grossly incorrect advice.

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