Grammar rules you can (and often should) break as a copywriter
By Cindy Schrauben
Great Gus Marketing
I’m a grammar nerd. But, as a copywriter, my tendency to follow the grammar rules I was taught in school is often at odds with effective marketing writing. So, while I’ve found it challenging to allow myself to break rules that have been drilled into me since grade school, I’ve discovered it is necessary and freeing.
The overriding reason I’ve become comfortable breaking grammar rules as a copywriter is that they don’t always apply to copywriting. One of the most important things to know about copywriting is that it’s vital to write how your audience speaks. And virtually no one speaks the way we’re taught to write in school. So, if you use phrasing and words familiar to your audience, you’ll write more engaging copy.
Remember, you’re writing for your audience, not your high school English teacher.
Here are 9 grammar rules I regularly break, along with an explanation of why.
Rule #1 – Never end a sentence with a preposition
This rule is commonly broken because rewriting a sentence to move the preposition from the end often makes the sentence awkward or overly formal. For example, to not break the rule, the sentence “What are you waiting for?” would become “For what are you waiting?” Yikes! No one in this century speaks like this, so you shouldn’t write like it either.
Rule #2 – Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction
I remember being taught this as a kid and never understanding why it’s wrong. I’ve researched the reasoning behind this “rule” and came up empty. The closest reason I’ve found is that starting a sentence with a conjunction leads to more informal prose, and for academic writing, that’s a no-no. Copywriting is different, and since marketing writing should mimic how people talk, being less formal is often the goal. So, if it works, start sentences with “and,” “but,” or, well, “or.”
Rule #3 – “I” or other personal pronouns don’t belong
It’s true – if you’re writing an academic paper or a formal document, you don’t want to use “I” or “we.” But we’re talking about writing copy, not college essays. If you’re writing a blog, you want it to be personal, so use “I” or “we” (please don’t use the “royal we”; only use “we” if you’re referring to your company or more than one person). Using personal pronouns is friendlier, more engaging, and helps your audience get to know you.
Rule #4 – Spell out numbers one through nine 1-9
This rule has been one of the most difficult for me to break. I was taught to spell out numbers nine and lower throughout school and in my journalism training. If I’d written “9” in journalism school instead of “nine,” my grade would have taken a huge hit. But, with most of my writing now appearing online, sometimes it just makes sense to break this rule. One reason is that spelling out numbers takes more characters than using numerals, and sometimes (like with Twitter), every character you use matters. Another is that 9 stands out much more than nine. And, in copywriting, you’re always seeking eyeballs on your copy.
Rule #5 – Don’t use slang
Like several other rules, the reason for not using slang is its lack of formality. But, again, in copywriting, you should write the way your audience speaks. If you can use the slang your audience uses and use it naturally, then go for it. Just make sure it is natural so your audience doesn’t get the feeling that you’re pandering to them.
Rule #6 – Never split infinitives
Grammar rules say you shouldn’t put any word between “to” and the verb that follows it. Usually, the word that splits the infinitive is an adverb (“ly” words). But, when we write the way we speak, there will be split infinitives. Most likely, you’d say, “Our goal is to dramatically increase your online presence,” not “Our goal is to increase your online presence dramatically.” Again, go with whatever feels natural for your audience.
Rule #7 – Don’t use contractions
This rule is easy for me to break. Contractions make writing easier to read and relatable to your audience because we use contractions unless speaking or writing formally. I wouldn’t say “I am going to the store” or “I will see you soon.” Instead, when speaking, I’d say “I’m” and “I’ll,” and the same goes for writing. If the goal is to write how your readers speak, then use contractions.
Rule #8 – Avoid one-sentence paragraphs
One-sentence paragraphs are a big no-no in academic writing, but in copywriting, they are a boon to your copy. Because readers often skim copy, long paragraphs may make their eyes glaze over. You can capture and keep their attention by including paragraphs of varying lengths.
This sentence probably caught your attention.
So, don’t shy away from one-sentence paragraphs.
Rule #9 Sentence fragments are taboo
This is a good rule to ignore when writing marketing copy – within reason. Sentence fragments are conversational and are a natural part of speech, so they are effective in copywriting. You can use sentence fragments to get the reader’s attention and for emphasis. It’s done. All. The. Time. Just don’t overdo it.
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Based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Great Gus Marketing specializes in copywriting, content writing, and marketing strategy.