Grammar in copywriting? Bovvered?
Do you care about grammar?
I'd hazard a guess that Catherine Tate's redoubtable character, Lauren, almost certainly doesn't.
But when we write copy, should we slavishly follow the rules of grammar? Are you sure?
Read this and count how many grammatical rules I've broken.
Indiscriminate rule-breaking isn’t easy to put up with. There was a grammar specialist who I once knew. A not unpleasant man, I would hear him claim, “the less rules you break the better”. He would instruct me to never break the rules - none of them were to be broken. The rules you should never break are those that keep meaning clear. A grammar nerd will say they always keep to good grammar. And so should you.
In the space of 77 words, I’ve broken 9 grammatical rules. To see what they are, go to the end of the blog.
Provided we maintain clarity of communication, does it matter if, along the way, we break a few rules? Or, maybe we should be breaking the rules. Would you be brave enough to preach to these top brands about the rules of grammar?
Think different (Apple)
I’m lovin’ it (McDonald’s)
Book yourself fabulous (Wahanda)
Be more dog (O2)
Find your happy (Rightmove)
It's the clarity that counts
What matters is clarity - a clear message communicated in a way that's effective, in a way that gets the message across. Usually bad grammar jars. It just sounds wrong. But, done well, breaking the rules can work brilliantly in our favour - making our message clearer and more powerful, and hopefully persuading the reader to sign up or buy. The skill is knowing which rules to break ... and how. Time and again you see this in the world of advertising.
Let's leave the last word to 'the father of advertising' (and a must-read for anyone interested in the principles of producing effective content for websites), David Ogilvy. He once remarked
'I don’t know the rules of grammar. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.'
Those broken rules
As for the passage above, here are the broken rules. Some are pretty hard to take, but surely not all. You decide.
1. 'Indiscriminate rule-breaking isn’t easy to put up with.' Ending the sentence with a preposition.
2. 'There was a grammar specialist who I once knew.' Not ‘who’ - should be ‘whom’.
3. 'A not unpleasant man', … tut-tut - a double negative - but it definitely has its place, don't you think?
4. 'A not unpleasant man, I would hear him claim,' … This is the case of the dangling modifier.
The subject at the start of the second part of the sentence should match the one at the start of the first.
A classic case is in badly worded sales emails or letters e.g. “As a loyal customer of many years standing, I’m delighted to announce …”
5. 'the less rules you break the better'. ‘Rules’ are 'countable nouns'. Should be ‘fewer’, not ‘less’.
6. 'He would instruct me to never break the rules'. Split infinitive. Should be ‘He would instruct me never to break the rules'.
7. 'None of them were to be broken'. Should be 'None of them was to be broken'. Who cares? Not me.
8. 'The rules you should never break.' The word ‘that’ is missing. Should be ‘the rules that you should never break …
9. 'And so should you.' Starts with a conjunction and it’s just not a proper sentence - no subject/verb/object. But again - who cares?