6 Common Copywriting Grammar/Usage Debates
September 11, 2017
Since we were kids, much of the writing instruction we received focused on grammar and usage rules. Well-meaning English teachers reinforced the “correct” way to write and pointed out when we made mistakes. And for the most part, all those rules worked—so much so that we take for granted that we learned them in the first place.
Years later, a few of their rules—rules that editors enforce and reinforce in the present day—are not so cut-and-dry. Common copywriting debates rage among writing mavens and editing geeks (the latter of which I proudly am). Some of these arguments have no wrong answers and are just a matter of preference. Others turn upside down grammar and usage rules that writers have followed for decades.
Interestingly, some writers (and editors) hold fast to the old rules, not realizing they have options. Here are six common copywriting debates you may encounter as you create inbound marketing content:
1. Ending a sentence with a preposition
The admonition against ending a sentence with a preposition dates back a few centuries, but we’re in 2017, and the rule simply hasn’t aged well. The alternative to the terminal preposition is often an awkward and/or wordy sentence—He gave me something to believe in becomes He gave me something in which to believe, which is just bulky.
The verdict: Although sometimes the sentence-ending preposition is extraneous (e.g., Where are you going to? doesn’t really need the to), in many cases, it’s fine and essential to the sentence. You can avoid it in formal writing, but for inbound marketing content that is more conversational, a preposition is something that is OK to end a sentence with. (See what I did?!)
2. Singular they
English doesn’t have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. That’s a problem because if you are referencing a person whose gender hasn’t been identified, do you use he, she, he or she, or they? Most copy editors hate the choice of they in this situation. I don’t like it either—besides going against every fiber of my training that pronouns should agree with nouns and verbs, a true plural noun could be mistakenly seen as the antecedent to singular they. However, the die-hards against singular they are coming around. The Associated Press created a stir earlier this year by saying singular they was OK to use sparingly.
The verdict: Follow AP’s advice: Use as a last resort and try to write around having to use it at all.
3. Passive voice
English teachers for decades have instructed their students to not write in passive voice. This is good advice—you want the subjects of your sentence to powerfully deliver their action via the predicate. However, passive voice sometimes can’t be avoided (like in this sentence). The team was negatively impacted has no place to go to become active—by the information in this sentence, you don’t know what or who was doing the impacting.
The verdict: If you can easily and obviously change a passive-voice sentence to active, go for it. Otherwise, confidently use passive voice with the knowledge that it’s the best way to deliver your message.
4. Starting a sentence with a conjunction
This is a rule that many people probably learned in primary grades, and the reasoning behind it is that when kids start a sentence with and or because, it doesn’t lead to a construction with a subject or predicate. That’s fine for eight-year-olds, but we grownups know how to use a subjunctive clause to start a sentence. Because means the same as as a result, so go ahead and use it. Moreover, if you have a long compound sentence, breaking it up and starting the second sentence with a coordinate conjunction (i.e., and, but, or) helps the reader and can even create a little emphasis.
The verdict: As long as your sentence still has a subject and predicate, conjunctions are fine to start a sentence with. That said, don’t go overboard with the coordinate conjunctions to open sentences—use them only to enhance the text.
5. In order to
Microsoft Word hates in order to, flagging it every time on the grammar check, and some editors are militant about shortening it down to just to. Though I agree the longer wording sometimes is unnecessary, it does have its place. If you are using to multiple times in a sentence, in order to can break it up. And then there’s this example:
I bought a knit hat to prepare for winter.
Read that literally and it can sound like the knit hat is responsible for preparing for winter rather than the speaker (that’s one magic hat). You could flip the sentence around, or you can use in order to to achieve clarity.
The verdict: If you feel in order to makes your sentence better, use it and don’t feel bad about your decision.
6. Repeating words in the same or consecutive sentences
This was a rule I remember from Mr. Zielinski, my English teacher from freshman year of high school whom I’ve referenced before: Do not repeat a word (beyond articles, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs) in the same sentence, the preceding sentence, or the proceeding sentence. It’s a good guideline for forcing you to vary your vocabulary, not be boring, and not settle for the first thing that comes out of your brain (and it’s a great guideline for high schoolers to improve their writing). However, the rule can also result in confusing pronouns, muddled messaging, and synonyms that should never see the light of day.
The verdict: Sorry, Mr. Z., for this common copywriting debate; I’m declaring that your rule must be optional. Inbound marketing content that confuses the reader isn’t effective marketing content. And with SEO considerations, repeating a word might increase the chance that someone finds your content in the first place. Be judicious with repeating words but always put clarity first. And by all means, don’t go running to a thesaurus.
What common copywriting debates do you wrestle with?
About the author
Joe Gillespie is Director of Inbound Copy for SmartBug Media. He graduated from Marquette University with a B.A. in journalism and, before coming to SmartBug, was a two-decade veteran of the newspaper industry. Read more articles by Joe Gillespie.
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