Grammar rules for advertising are a little different to your everyday language.
We're not exactly using incorrect grammar on purpose...
It's more that we're bending the rules slightly to create more of an impact.
Sometimes though, those “rules” we're bending aren't actually rules at all:
They're just things which various schools taught at one time or another for no particular reason.
Let's take a look at which are just straight-up examples of poor grammar...
And which are little tricks we can use to nudge our marketing copy in a more powerful direction.
Are grammar rules for advertising the same as you'd learn in the classroom?
No, they're not the same. Honestly, I don't really remember my secondary school grammar lessons. Kudos to you if you do!
These days, though, it's my job to learn about these things.
So, armed with little more than my determination to keep particularly pithy phrases I've written from being watered down by a bucketful of boring grammar rules, I trawl the internet and pick up honest-to-goodness grammar books...
All so you don't have to.
Here we go!
Straight-up examples of poor grammar
Some classroom rules were made to be broken. Others were not. I'm not trying to encourage you to write in terrible broken English here.
For instance, the kind of copy produced by those copywriting companies who have stables of writers churning out cheap SEO articles which are barely legible really gets my goat.
Who's benefiting from having copy like that anywhere near their brand?
But leaving those guys aside until after the revolution, there are still plenty of real world grammar mistakes which are easy enough to make.
When we're talking about “bending some rules”, these are not they:
1) Possessive apostrophes
This is a big one. It's probably the most common example of poor grammar you'll come across. I see it on shop signs all over the place.
I'm sure I'm not alone.
It often crops up when someone really wants the plural form of a word ending in “y”.
Victoria's Secret famously did this in massive font on a multi-million dollar advertising campaign.
Their slogan was:
“You've never seen “body's” like this.”
Those quote marks in the middle aren't there for effect. That's really how they chose to highlight their probably deliberate yet massive mistake.
In fairness, the range they were advertising was called “Body by Victoria” so perhaps they were trying to do keep the name intact?
Whatever. It still looks terrible!
2) Your/ you're AND they're/ there/ their
These are the sorts of school-taught rules we're not playing around with. Each of these have a place where they live for very good reasons.
3) Its/ it's
This is probably linked to problema número uno, the possessive apostrophe. It's kind of reversed here:
“It's” is a contraction of “it is”
“Its” is the possessive
4) Could of vs. could have
I think this might come from the fact that if you say “should've” or “could've” and you have any kind of accent, it sounds like they should be contractions of “should of” or “could of” rather than the “have”s which they actually are.
It's easy enough to do. It's also more than a teensy bit wrong.
Semicolons connect two independent though closely linked causes.
You should probably just avoid these in most advertising copy. There are a few places where they might be useful, but not many.
One of my first editors called them a little highbrow for most copy. I think he's right.
I occasionally also see them used to end bullet point lists. I find this a little bit incomprehensible.
It's already in a list format, guys. No need to separate it any further.
For lists, use a full stop if it's a sentence. Otherwise, there's no need to use anything.
How to write marketing copy – when a mistake isn't a mistake
So, some mistakes are outright errors.
But there are many grammar rules which either aren't rules at all or which we can kind of gloss over when writing marketing copy.
There are also some which we can actively embrace the exact opposite of:
1) “You can't start a sentence with a conjunction” (Myth!)
This is a point of feedback I occasionally get from clients. It's easy enough to see why:
Dictionary definition-wise, a conjunction is a word that is used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause. Examples are:
It follows, you might think, that if a conjunction connects clauses, it can't connect the first clause to nothing. Can it?
Well, that is very logical. It's also not at all true.
There's no rule that says you can't start a sentence with a conjunction. You'll see these “grammatical errors” in published books – both fiction and non-fiction – all the time.
I'll level with you:
I love starting the occasional sentence a conjunction. I think it can make any bit of writing more hard-hitting. I went through a brief phase of doing it everywhere.
But, as with most things in life, all things in moderation.
(See what I did there?)
2) “You can't split an infinitive” (Myth!)
Yes. Yes, you can.
This rule was taught in English language classrooms across the UK, in particular, for many years. Yet there is no real-world grammar rule which says you can't do it.
I mean, the Victorians thought no-splitting was a thing. But they thought smoking was good for you.
An infinitive is a form a verb can take. Technically, it's “a verbal that can function as noun, adjective, or adverb.” In the example below, the infinitive is “to go”.
Essentially, an infinitive is always “to” and a verb.
A split infinitive is when an adverb is placed between the “to” and the verb.
Check out this article in The Guardian where they mention one of my favourite, highly emotive science fiction quotes (I'm a geek; sue me) in relation to this:
“To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
See where ”boldly” has jumped in there? That infinitive is well and truly split. It's also creating much more of an impact than “to go boldly”.
(To the uninitiated, the line is from Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. That's the one with no little boys with magic wands, fewer laser swords and precisely zero Princess Leias.)
3) “One-word sentences and sentence fragments aren't a thing” (yes, they are)
There are certain rules which describe what technically constitutes a sentence. For example, a sentence needs to have a subject and a verb.
I think, technically speaking, a paragraph also needs to have a minimum of three sentences...
Sorry if that objection was too technical. Let me rephrase:
Shorter sentences are, generally speaking, better.
If you want to check out some some fantastic marketing copy which exploits the power of short sentences, look at anything written by Apple:
“The biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone.”
“All-new Lightning connector. Smaller. Smarter. Durable. Reversible.”
“So much more than before. And so much less, too.”
That is just lovely.
We're throwing oh-so-many rules out the window at this point. But we are creating some much more powerful copy.
When is a grammar “rule” not a rule?
When it's a personal preference, of course.
Many of the suggestions listed above are just that – suggestions. I would highly suggest factoring them into your advertising copy.
However, you also need to balance them against some other things:
1) Think about your brand
The biggest proviso with all of these marketing copy grammar rules is that if you don't like doing it, don't let it be done in your copy.
Your brand represents your company. You'll probably be happier if you are happy with it.
So, if you don't like split infinitives or sentences which begin with a conjunction, then that is a rule.
But be sure to tell your freelance copywriter about this if you're hiring one to create your copy. This is why brand style guides are so useful – even if that guide is only half a dozen bullet points because you haven't really thought about it before now.
Because each brand and each client is different. Writers do not often learn through psychic means.
2) Consider your audience
Most people will use different language depending on their audience:
If you're having a conversation with friends over dinner, for example, you might put something very differently to when you later have the same conversation with your boss.
Think about how your audience might expect to be spoken to and how they might relate to what you're saying. Plus, remember that you don't have long to grab and hold any given reader's attention.
If they can't relate, they won't conversate.
Or something slogan-like to that effect.
Learn to love short sentences in your advertising copy
Short sentences are better.
They're more powerful. They're easier to read online.
You might notice that very few paragraphs in this post are longer than two sentences. If they are, they tend to have at least one very short sentence in there.
That's not an accident.
The average person spends a lot of time interacting with websites, emails and other content these days.
Big blocks of text are an instant turn-off. Your brain can't help but think: ugh, more of this?
But, like most of the rules listed here, this isn't set in stone.
Because, really, there aren't any hard-and-fast grammar rules for advertising.
If you think there are, be sure to tell any copywriting agency you work with what you think they are.
Do you have your own advertising grammar rules?
Let me know what they are. We'll create some killer copy together.
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