Copywriting – Guffawing in the face of Grammar?

If, like me, you’re a child of Tizwas and VHS tape recorders, you were most likely taught English grammar in school the hard and inflexible way. There were certain immovable and steadfast rules which were to be strictly adhered to. Conjunctives were not to be used at the start of sentence, splitting infinitives was a cardinal sin and ending a sentence with a preposition would have you go straight to hell and damnation, not to mention the headmaster’s office. Pretty hardcore eh?

So now that you’ve graduated from the school of hard knocks (it wasn’t so bad really, I mean we got to ride BMX bikes without helmets, watch the original Star Wars movies for the first time, and experience the illicit thrill of taping the Top 40 off Radio 1 each week) and you’re firmly entrenched in the land of commerce, how should you write copy for your business?

With the rise of social media, blogging, textspeak and generally a much more relaxed style of language the backbone of our communications these days, we’re encouraged to speak informally to our customers – you know, write like you speak an’ all. Keep it real – Booyakasha!

But, hang on a minute, won’t all that unabashed disregard for grammar rule-breaking turn off those customers of yours who, aged nine, dreamt of being a contestant on Crackerjack and now harbour a nostalgic affection for ‘doing things properly’? In these uncertain times, what’s a business owner to do?

Really Unique

This topic recently came to my attention when I saw a conversation trending on LinkedIn about a fellow copywriter’s (Bethany Joy linkedin.com/in/iambethanyjoy) bugbear of putting intensifiers in front of the word ‘unique’. She correctly surmised that to be unique means you are ‘one of a kind’ and there is no varying degree of this. It’s basically a black and white situation. So you can’t be ‘incredibly unique’ or ‘quite unique’. It’s just a total misnomer.

And I get that. Being a fully signed-up member of the ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ brigade and a total stickler for linguistically dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, I can see how sloppy grammar can totally get your goat. There’s an air of unprofessionalism about it and too many spelling mistakes or clumsily scattered apostrophes in your business content can make you look like you don’t really mean, well, business. My English school teacher would have certainly lost her shizzle over a misplaced intensifier.

To boldly go where no copywriter’s gone before

But the thing is, copywriting’s a bit of a black sheep where grammar’s concerned. It isn’t about keeping to the rules. In my experience, copywriting’s about fooling about with language, using it to tease, tantalize and tempt; experimenting with ways to toy with it and manipulate it, to say ‘oi’ to your reader and unequivocally grab their attention. To boldly go (I mean, come on, ‘to go boldly’ just doesn’t have the same oomph does it?) where no words have gone before. And sometimes, to do that means we need to mould those perhaps not-so-set-in-stone grammar rules, to connect with our reader in a way that speaks to them.

In response to Bethany Joy’s post, I challenged her view, questioning whether copywriting was more about ‘guffawing in the face of grammar’ and offered an example of one of the mightiest brand’s flagrant scoffing at grammatical protocol.

Some years ago, Apple’s incredibly successful ‘Think Different’ campaign spoke to ‘the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, those not fond of rules and have no respect for the status quo’. It encouraged people to challenge dictum, to think outside of the box. So if there was ever an endorsement to meddle with syntax – there’s your justification. All rounded off nicely with one heckuva two-fingers-up at grammar (‘Think Different’ should, correctly speaking, read ‘Think Differently’).

Knowing when to smash the rules (up)

What all this boils down to is a copywriting 101. Which is, the way you write to your customers basically comes down to your customers themselves. When writing any sort of copy for customers or would-be clients, your first job is to get under their skin and into their head. To work out their pain points and their niggles. And part of that is figuring out whether a split infinitive will really bother your reader and turn them off your brand, or whether it will intrigue them, entice them and leave them gagging for more.

I think Bethany Joy’s response to my comment really hit the nail on the head. Summed up she said ‘the art of writing good copy is about being the master of language and knowing, where necessary to break the rules.’

I suppose you could say then, a master copywriter is simply a ‘rebel with a cause’.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

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