To use or not to use: How important is perfect grammar in copywriting?

You’re plopped in front of your computer and terrific ideas are sluicing out of your brain, but just as you’re getting to the good parts, an image of your bespectacled English teacher forms in front of you. This weird hallucination of her is haunting your work and challenging your grammar.

Old lady telling copywriters off for bad grammar

Before you know it, the ideas previously cavorting in your head have taken a vacation. Your writing screeches to a deafening halt.

Copywriters are often burdened by the fact that grammar isn’t a reflection of the way we converse in real life. That is the real problem. Even great copywriters must maintain a delicate balance between writing attractive copy and following grammar rules. It’s an art. And like all artists, copywriters struggle with the precipice of grammaticality and readability.

So the question is; who’s right? The copywriter who’s bursting with ideas? Or, the fearful English student in you who shudders and shakes at the thought of crossing that supposed solid line between right and wrong?

Without grammar, perhaps humanity would dissolve into a rabid group ruled by anarchy. It creates a systemised means of communication and interaction, whether verbal or written. It is a means of discouraging ambiguity and highlighting the importance of context and structure.

But that’s not to say it is written in stone. Grammar, like all things, slowly evolves over time. Linguistic patterns, etymologies, jargon, and societal trends morph with time, paving the way for new definitions and contexts.

The point is; there’s a reason you’re doing a double take on grammaticality. You want to be conversational and natural when it comes to your copy, but how far can you bend the rules in search for that perfect tone?

The answer lies in context. If you’re composing a dissertation paper about the sociological implications and symbolisms of women in literature, then by all means, use perfect grammar. But, if you’re trying to convince the average man on the street about the merit of a brand new smart-phone, make room for a few exceptions. Well actually, make room for a LOT of exceptions.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” – Pablo Picasso

Grammar Rule 1: Sentence fragments are unacceptable because they do not have subject-verb constructions.

‘Real’ sentences must have a complete thought, one that comprises a subject and a verb. Anything less than this structure is considered a fragment.

When you should break it

Fragments can form complete thoughts, even without a subject or a verb. They can give a clear and concise idea as part of an even bigger idea. More to the point, they give a brief pause to your idea and highlight specific parts of it for greater emphasis. But, use them carelessly and they may only create confusion.

Good use of fragments:

“This E-book app houses thousands of e-books. From the latest best sellers to the sought-after classics. Visit our website for details. Don’t miss out. Download now.”

Bad use of fragments:

“It’s time. To download the app. Visit our website. Get the latest best sellers. From around the world.”

Grammar Rule 2: A sentence should not start with the conjunctions ‘but’ and ‘and’.

Some grammarians would insist that beginning a sentence with conjunctions already opens it up to an incomplete thought. But plenty of grammarians would disagree, as do I.

When you should break it…

Leading with an ‘and’ or ‘but’ can be an effective way to transition to succeeding ideas; to emphasise a sentence fragment, or to break up long sentences. You just have to learn NOT to overdo it.

Good use of conjunctions:

“The company has been in the industry for over 10 years. And they have never missed a deadline.”

Bad use of conjunctions:

“The company is family owned. And is based in Australia. And has five years worth of experience in IT service. But its clients also include people from UK, South Africa, and New Zealand.”

Grammar Rule 3: Sentences must not end with prepositions.

Purists insist that sentences ending in preposition are incomplete, incoherent, and incorrect. As prepositions are words that show relationships between two things, i.e. on, in, with, to, they must have a succeeding word.

When you should break it…

As Winston Churchill put it, “This is the sort of nonsense with which I will not up with put.” See that? It doesn’t make sense. Ending sentences with prepositions is sometimes a necessity, maybe even a privilege YOU should put up with.

Good use of ending with prepositions:

“BPO Companies have a firm ground to stand on. Their resources are seemingly boundless and their employer-employee relationships are something to be proud of.

Bad use of ending with prepositions:

“Where are you going to?”

Grammar Rule 4: Informal language like slang and contractions are inaccurate and ambiguous.

The rule says that using English in professional settings shouldn’t include slang and contractions. But would we not sound like Shakespeare if we avoid the use of contractions? Would we not?

When you should break it…

I say, all the time. Use contractions when you deem it necessary. It’s perfectly okay. For slang though, use it carefully and sensitively. Research the definitions exhaustively to avoid misinterpretations with your copy. Be familiar with current colloquialisms and jargon. At best, use conversational English.

Good use of slang and contractions:

“There’s a reason the company is considered Asia’s leading BPO. It’s not the number of employees they hire, but their rate of sales and PR campaigns.”

Bad use of slang and contractions:

“It’s gonna be a bumpy ride, y’all.”

Grammar Rule 5: The Oxford Comma

Loyalists to The Oxford Comma rule insist that there should be a comma preceding the ‘and’ in a series or list of items.

When you should break it…

To separate thoughts, to distinguish meaning, or to give a brief pause, the Oxford comma is useful. It conveys a striking difference between “juice, fish and chips” (juice + a plate of fish with a side of potato chips) and “juice, fish, and chips” (juice + fish + chips).

For more about commas and other punctuations, read Belinda’s “Confessions of an Over-Punctuator”

Good use of the Oxford comma:

“The world of SEO has been drastically affected by Google’s biggest updates, namely the Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird updates.”

*I can’t cite a bad example, per se, because the Oxford comma merely prevents ambiguity. The fault, therefore, is in the context you present.

Grammar Rule 6: Infinitives can’t be split.

Rules insist that infinitive structures shouldn’t be separated with adverbs; the formula [to + base form of the verb] should be consistent all throughout formal use.

When you should break it…

The problem with never using adverbs in infinitives is that it puts emphasis on the verb, rather than the adverb. But sometimes, the exact opposite is what you want, meaning you want to emphasise how an action is done rather than what is done.

Good use of split infinitives:

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yes, Star Trek.

Bad use of split infinitives:

“The company is going to immediately address the issue.”

So what is perfect grammar? Does it even exist?

Grammar is constantly changing. There’s no such thing as ‘perfect’ use of the system because it is a system that rapidly transitions into something else.

Imagine a world where we always conform to subject-verb agreements, syntax structures, and grammatical rules. Imagine a world where poets can’t manipulate prose into flowery language; where lyricists can’t transform jargon into art; where authors can’t give delightful new meanings to words. How boring and anti-climactic would that world be?

Copy-write shouldn’t be perfect, but seductive

You don’t have to flip through English textbooks just to compose decent copy. You don’t need a degree in Linguistics or Literature to be an excellent copywriter. What’s crucial here is seduction through prose; the art of manipulating words into attractive, irresistible writing. Seduce > Sell > Succeed.

It’s that simple!

Rich Eaves – has written 3 posts on this site.
Richard Eaves is a Digital Marketing Specialist who oversees more than 300 campaigns for Smart Traffic, a London SEO company that offers search-marketing strategies for various companies.

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  • http://www.thesocialom.com/ Alison Cummings

    Hi Belinda,

    Great read and nice accompaniment to your piece on semicolons.

    As a writer, I usually let the context determine the tone, hence the flexibility (or not) on grammar strictness. For example, I will probably swear like a sailor in the guest post I *still* owe you.

    So, yes – I’ve broken the rules a few times when necessary.

    And I don’t have any regrets.

    • http://www.copywritematters.com.au/subscribe-copy-detective/ Belinda Weaver

      Me too Alison and I’m all for no regrets!

  • Glenn Murray

    I’ve been bangin’ on about this for years, so we all know how I feel about it. Re the preposition ‘bad use’ example, I’d say it’s bad because it’s redundant, not because the sentence ends in a preposition. i.e. A destination is implicit in “Where”.

    Also, I wouldn’t completely write off your ‘bad use’ example for slang. I’m sure there are plenty of places where that’d be appropriate. Many more than would use it, too, unfortunately. :-( (Not a criticism. I know you’re assuming some level of corporate audience here.)

    Re the Oxford comma… I think most instances are examples of bad use. I reckons you should only use it before the last item when the last item is a double-bunger. Like “fish and chips”. As you said, to eliminate ambiguity. If you’re using it all the time, all you’re doing is giving readers something to trip over.

    • http://www.copywritematters.com.au/subscribe-copy-detective/ Belinda Weaver

      Thanks for wading in Glenn. I can’t actually think of anything constructive to add to your comments except for HEAR HEAR … so I won’t.

    • http://www.copywritematters.com.au/subscribe-copy-detective/ Belinda Weaver

      I will also add that this most excellent post wasn’t actually written by me. It was written by Rich Eaves. I forgot to change the author profile and have been claiming his glory!

      • Glenn Murray

        I figured that’d happened. Your tweet said it was by Rich. :-)

  • http://www.globalwebforce.com/ William Forrest

    Correct english is important but most of the time it is important to post a content that is useful, has interesting topics and uses attractive words.

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