Why it’s okay for English teachers to despise your ads and brochures

“I’m sorry, but I can’t believe you get paid to write.” The resident proofreader (usually an intern or fallen English major) regards me with unbridled contempt. “Any seventh-grader knows you can’t use contractions. Look, you used a preposition to wrap this paragraph up.” Disgust flickers in her eyes. “And you can’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.”

Yes, you’re right. But then again, you’re wrong. Those of us who write for a living know the situation all too well. Start a single sentence in an eight-page brochure with “but,” and we’re viewed as thoroughly incompetent.

Even when an apparent grammatical faux pas doesn’t reduce a reviewer to revulsion, it can trigger sincere questions. Nobody wants to approve copy that’s fundamentally incorrect or potentially embarrassing. Given that your sophomore English teacher lectured about the impropriety of opening sentences with conjunctions, it’s reasonable to ask whether the writer disregarded this critical rule or is just plain unaware of it.

Grammar and syntax are critical elements of good writing, but copy to promote your organization and what it offers shares little with those papers you wrote for Composition 101. In fact, if your ad, brochure or website’s copy’s grammar were to earn an A+ from your instructor, it probably wouldn’t be as effective as it could be.

I’m no grammarian. But most effective writers I’ve known weren’t expert grammarians. And most expert grammarians I’ve known weren’t effective writers. While nearly everyone who made it through college believes that he or she retains a fairly good knowledge of grammar, baseball’s infield fly rule is more readily understood. Even your word processor’s whiz-bang grammar checker is frequently faulty (particularly where agreement issues are concerned). Little wonder that writers are often perceived as being wrong when we really aren’t.

“Just as different types of buildings require different foundations, different types of writing demand different types of grammar.”

You see, grammar isn’t a rigid set of rules. It’s a framework. Just as different types of buildings require different foundations, different types of writing demand different types of grammar. Nor is grammar timeless. Things have changed since you sat in Mrs. McGillicuddy’s room. A decade ago, I used E-Mail. For a while, I sent things through E-mail, then e-mail. Now you can contact me through email. That’s a dramatic example, but language, style and grammar evolve constantly.

Why is grammar such a source of confusion? Part of it is our education system – and I mean no disrespect to the brave people who work so hard to help kids grasp the importance of gerunds and antecedents. High schools and colleges teach a style of writing that’s used only within the halls of academe. Unfortunately, that often cumbersome, frequently unfriendly style sticks with many students long after graduation. Want proof? Read some of the memos circulating around your office.

Unlike Composition 101, copywriting isn’t about impressing a jaded professor. It’s about selling. Telling. Convincing. Entertaining. Emphasizing. Even infuriating. Effective copywriting is also extraordinarily individual and personal. After all, an ad that appears in a million-circulation publication must connect with one reader at a time.

In fact, the more copy sounds like conversation, the more effective it tends to be. When people read, they typically hear the words, the structure and the syntax as a subconscious voice. That’s why you’ll sometimes bristle while watching a movie that has been adapted from a favorite book – because the characters don’t sound like they did when you heard them internally.

That doesn’t mean writers should ignore basic rules of syntax. A wise boss once told me I could break a rule whenever I felt the need – as long as I could defend my reasoning and actually knew the rule I was breaking. In addition, the degree of grammatical correctness should reflect the situation, the medium and the audience. An ad for busy industrial purchasing managers doesn’t need to be as formal as a white paper directed to English teachers.

Among the more common areas of confusion:

Contractions. There is nothing wrong with using contractions in copy. Contractions are a regular element of conversation that keeps copy talky and friendly. Don’t avoid them because your English teacher wouldn’t let you use them. (How does “Do not avoid them because your English teacher would not let you use them” sound in comparison? Read both aloud. One sounds like you; the other like Queen Victoria.)

Conjunctions. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction is perfectly acceptable. And sometimes, it adds impact. But not if you do it too often. Or place them inappropriately. Treat conjunctions like spices: a little bit adds flavor, too much is overwhelming.

Fragments. As with conjunctions, it’s acceptable to use fragments in copy for impact, but do so sparingly. Otherwise the reader. Will believe. You have developed. A neurological disorder. Of some sort.

Second person. You’re not supposed to use the second person (you) in school writing. But copywriting should be a personal, informal conversation between you and your audience, so it’s not only acceptable to use you, it’s actually a good idea.

Exclamation points. We know that one exclamation point (or bang) adds impact to a sentence, so using three must be really powerful, right? Wrong. Using one is a little like raising your voice just below a shout. Three is like yelling, waving your arms and jumping up and down on one foot. You’ll draw attention, but for the wrong reasons.

Quotation marks. Be careful about using quotation marks for anything but a direct quote, because they imply that you’re trying to fool someone. If you say your widget is made out of “silver” or “real” silver, the reader will assume it’s an imitation.

Misused ellipses. That friendly little dot-dot-dot may be something other than Morse code for S, but it’s not a substitute for commas and dashes. The ellipsis (…) is properly used to tell the reader that part or all of a sentence has been removed from a quote. Granted, many people use it incorrectly … like this … but that doesn’t make it right.

Prepositions. You were taught that you’re not supposed end a sentence with a preposition. That was true even in informal writing decades ago. But again, styles change, and it’s no longer considered a mortal sin, especially if you do so only sparingly.

Trust your writer to make the right choices for the audience and the needs of the project. Don’t let the grammar police be the ultimate judges of whether copy is good, bad, or effective. If you spot what appears to be an error, point it out and ask for an explanation – but please realize that “it just sounds better that way” can be a legitimate reason. Most of all, measure your writers by effectiveness in achieving your objectives, not by whether they live up to Mrs. McGillicuddy’s dictates.