Don't be a stickler: Why good copy often means bad grammar

As a copywriter with a few years of solid experience under my belt, I've encountered briefs of all shapes and sizes. Some of them are a paint-by-numbers affair, with the client providing all the guidance and detail I need to deliver precisely what they want. Others are more flexible and open-ended, allowing me to stretch my creative wings and take the initiative. In almost all cases, I run into the same issue - my clients are terrified of breaking the rules. 

Honestly? Rules are there to be broken. And It's my job as a copywriter to understand those rules and know when to break them in order to help your copy do its job.  

Academia, we hardly knew ye.

We’ve all been taught to write academically at school. We know where to use apostrophes and colons, and that you go there to get to their house.  These are examples of rules that should be followed without question, but what about the lesser rules? What about prepositions, conjunctions and split infinitives? Can a sentence start with the words ‘and’ or ‘but’? Can a paragraph only have one sentence?

Here’s where things get a little murky.

The thing is, good grammar simply doesn’t reflect the way people speak. And the way people speak is often the way they want to be spoken to. Capisce? For your content to work well, it has to be engaging and easy for your audience to relate to. This works doubly so for digital marketing. You’re not talking at your audience, mindlessly relaying information. You’re talking to them, hoping they’ll respond. So act like it.

Let’s all embrace contractions.

One of the most recent examples I’ve encountered is a phobia of contractions. I was tasked with writing copy that was casual, conversational and engaging. I naturally opted for contractions because that’s how people speak. Look at these two calls to action:

If you are interested in finding out more, do not hesitate to contact us. We would love to hear from you. 

If you’re interested in finding out more, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love to hear from you. 

The first feels dry, cumbersome and robotic. The second feels natural, chatty and direct. The only difference is that the second sentence embraces contractions. They’re the very essence of casual speech. Even the Queen of England herself uses them when addressing the nation. Why should your B2C copy be any different? Unless, of course, you’re not trying to speak to… you know… people?

In some academic circles contractions are still frowned upon – and that’s fine – but when you’re writing some web copy to sell chocolate, you’re not penning a dissertation. We need to leave academia at the door.

Fragment away. Please.

Another rule I love to break is the use of fragments. Like this. And this. Fragmented sentences are the heart and soul of great copy. They can offer cadence and rhythm and make your words downright melodic. Headline and strapline writing would be impossible without the use of fragments. Calls to action would lose all their punch. Sentences would get overlong. Readers would glaze over. Fragments work on the assumption that the reader is intelligent. That they’ve derived enough context from what they’re reading to be able to piece the narrative together for themselves. Consider it a form of shorthand between author and audience. Try it. Seriously.

And don’t forget conjunctions.

I’ve already done it several times in this article, but please don’t be afraid to start sentences with a conjunction. Or can’t you handle that kind of heat? See what I did there? People in real life begin sentences with conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’ all the time, so why should your copy be any different? Admittedly, it’s something that took me a long time to shake as it was so heavily ingrained at school, but unshackle your pen and the leads will follow.

You ought to really split those infinitives.

The idea of splitting infinitives being a bad thing is archaic nonsense. What is a split infinitive, you ask? It’s not all that complicated. Basically, a split infinitive is when you place any word (often an adverb) directly before the verb in a sentence. For example:

“You have to really watch it”

is a nasty split infinitive. Sticklers would rather you write:

“You really have to watch it”

But by modern standards that changes the meaning slightly. The first sentence puts the emphasis on the verb ‘watch’, implying that you should study something very carefully to understand it. The second sentence puts the emphasis on the word ‘really’, implying disbelief or encouragement. Both are totally legitimate ways of communicating, but our attachment to Latin and ‘proper’ English teaches us that the split infinitive is something to be feared.

My favourite example of a split infinitive is Captain Picard’s monologue in the opening credits to Star Trek: The Next Generation where he says, “To boldly go where no-one has gone before!”

Here we have the word ‘boldly’ going before the verb. A split infinitive. What this does is put the emphasis on the boldness of the action. They’re not just going somewhere boldly. They’re boldly going. It adds dramatic effect. It works.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Frasier (The Unnatural, Season 4). Niles and Frasier are having a conversation when Frederick, Frasier’s son, comes running through the hallway…

Frasier: Frederick, what have I told you about running in the house?
Freddie: You told me to not run in the house.
Frasier: Frederick, what have I told you about splitting infinitives?
Niles: Frasier, let the boy be a boy.

Don’t be Frasier.