Ad Copywriters: Savages of the English Language

Scolding Granny

Just about everyone can write. And just about everybody wants to weigh in on advertising and web copy. Most suggested edits are factual, and we receive them with open arms. Other comments are more subjective. They’re weasel words to avoid making a strong claim that isn’t or hasn’t been proven true, i.e. “The best in its class for trucks over 2,000 pounds with calfskin upholstery.”

But the most damaging, by far, are those from the self-righteous grammarians. They shake their fingers and scold about dangling modifiers, coordinating conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence, and sentence fragments. The latter being the axis of all evil. These are the so-called lovers of the language who smugly put copywriters on the level of goons who intentionally deprive Bolivian children of their food.

What’s Up with All the Fragments?

The editorial guidelines of most academic publications forbid the use of sentence fragments. But when the cat jumps on them in the middle of the night, they say “What the hell?” In real life, the chairman of the medieval studies sprays fragments just like the rest of us. Even at the annual professor block party.

Language Percolates from the Spoken Word

Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” And you’ve probably noticed that print is no longer the dominant medium. And our speech is shaped by texting, Tweets, blog updates, and instantaneous communication to any place on the planet. The suggested length for a sentence in most newspapers is 14 words. Our speech, OMG, is time compressed.

If you’re serious about evaluating ad or web copy, read it out loud. If it sounds right, it probably is.

Language reflects the culture. Class distinctions, racial and sexual biases, are fading. We don’t call women girls, gay people homos, and home designers no longer list the main bedroom as the “owner’s suite.” We no longer swap bon mots in the language of the Bard, either. If we did, we’d be in for a beat down in a back alley.

The Message Matters, So Write Like It

Brush up on the famous grammarians, Strunk and White, and you’ll hear an insistence on using grammar and punctuation to clarify meaning. Clarifying meaning is what we do in marketing. If something in copy does not intensify meaning, we should blast it with a red pen.

Advertising doesn’t drive the English language, South Park does. So apologies to all the unyielding grammarians out there, we don’t work for you. People like people who echo their vibe, language and values. It’s hardwired into our brain. Copywriters work for consumers. And the good can change the tone of copy like a chameleon, and create a voice for a brand.

Good grammar is our tool for achieving clarity, but we’re not enslaved by it.

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