7 (More) Common Copywriting Grammar/Usage Debates
December 18, 2017
With the latest Star Wars movie just released, I’ve been thinking about sequels. After writing a post a few months ago about grammar/usage debates in copywriting, I’ve been thinking about a specific sequel: exploring even more debates that writers, editors, and marketers encounter every day.
My original post offered six such grammar/usage debates, but like any good sequel, I upped the ante and included seven here. If I try for a Part III, will I go for eight? Well, as you know, the third installment of any series is usually where the quality drops off (e.g., Jaws, The Godfather, Alien, Lethal Weapon, Superman, both Batman series, Police Academy, American Pie—I could write a whole blog just on this), so no promises.
But I digress. Here are seven additional copywriting grammar/usage debates to consider as you produce inbound marketing content:
Most writers use contractions and don’t think twice about it. (Heck, I used one in the last sentence without even realizing I did.) However, some people feel contractions are unprofessional, too informal, or just lazy. Contractions serve an important purpose: to make the flow of words seem less clunky. Consider the U2 classic I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Take out the contractions and you’re singing “I still have not found what I am looking for.” It just doesn’t work as well.
The verdict: Unless you are writing a legal document, use contractions at your discretion—however you feel it improves your marketing content. In 2017, good contraction use is far more professional than copy that is difficult to read. That said, I do follow a couple of guidelines with contraction use:
- Avoid the ’d construction: Consider he’d—this could mean he did, he had, or he would. To eliminate the ambiguity, I always spell out.
- Avoid ’s outside of possessives: Consider the text Joe’s orange. Does that mean I own an orange or overdid a spray-on tan? It’s is the exception here, but only because its doesn’t have an apostrophe.
One tip sometimes offered to improve writing is to eliminate adverbs from copy. This is overkill: Functional adverbs enhance the verbs, adjectives, or adverbs they modify. The problem lies with meaningless adverbs—I’m looking at you, very, extremely, and truly. Take this example: She was very happy. You are either happy or not happy, and if you want to delve into degrees of happiness, more specific words (e.g., ecstatic, giddy, overjoyed) are available.
The verdict: Embrace your adverbs when they add to the meaning of the copy and are not simply empty qualifiers or redundancies. And never use very. Never.
3. Splitting infinitives
Continuing with adverbs, we arrive at a “rule” your English teachers probably hammered into your grade school brains: Never split the infinitive. By splitting, we mean placing a word—usually an adverb—between to and the verb in an infinitive construction. This admonition goes back a few centuries and has no real basis in logic. And yet the rule persists.
The verdict: Splitting an infinitive often is necessary, because placing the adverb anywhere else in the sentence becomes too awkward. Even if it’s not awkward, split infinitives can deliver more emphasis on the action of the infinitive. Split away!
4. Splitting verbs
Speaking of splitting, another rule many writers believe they must adhere to is not interrupting a verb construction with an adverb (other than not) or any extra phrases. For example, I had exercised often in the morning or I had exercised in the morning often would be preferable to I had often exercised in the morning under this guideline. Some writers are strict about this; others think it’s too nitpicky.
The verdict: I once swore by this rule earlier in my copyediting career but have softened in my advancing age. Sometimes for emphasis, the interrupting adverb or phrase provides emphasis that it wouldn’t elsewhere in the sentence. Moreover, if you put your adverb too far away from the verb it modifies, it can get lost and lead to a clunkier sentence. So my advice is: Write a good predicate, and place the adverb wherever it makes the most sense and delivers the most impact. You may discover that 90 percent of the time, placement won’t make a difference.
5. Not only … but also
Not only/but also is a compound conjunction. If you use not only, it must be followed up with but also to balance out the construction (though but and also don’t necessarily need to be adjacent to each other). Therefore, Not only did I see a movie, I bought popcorn is incorrect—it needs the but also.
The verdict: Absolutely, this rule should be followed. Not only requires some sort of transition between the clauses that but also provides. I’m a big fan of this construction—it produces a little drama within the sentence and highlights a progression of events or outcomes. Just be sure the clauses on each side are parallel—e.g., I ordered not only an appetizer, but also a beer (note how the verb ordered is outside the not only ... but also, not within; had I used it within, I would have needed another verb about the beer). And FYI, you can use but also without the not only, just not the other way around.
Data in its purest form is a plural noun, with the singular being datum. However, data when referring to just one dataset is awkward as a plural and simply ridiculous as datum. Therefore, data is generally accepted by most style guides as singular or plural, depending on its usage.
The verdict: Bravo! This is one change many editors have resisted—after all, data derives from a Latin plural noun. However, decades of writers ignoring the plural, as well as a digital age in which data is commonplace outside of science and engineering, have turned singular data into the norm. You can be a purist, or your readers can avoid being confused by a weird plural use of data. Unless you are using data to refer to multiple datasets (e.g., Census data over the last century reveal interesting trends), stick with the latter.
The common copyeditor’s approach to over is to use it only when referencing physical space, not when talking about numbers. In other words, you haven’t seen Star Wars over 70 times, you’ve seen it more than 70 times. That’s the approach writers are supposed to take, and that’s the revision editors almost always make. Yet the more colloquial use of over is seen constantly, to the point that The Associated Press is now allowing it in reference to numerical value.
The verdict: Boo! Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe over (and under) should be reserved for non-numerical use. And most other editors you encounter will change it on you—old habits just die hard. That said, I will leave it in if it’s used in relation to a certain abstract level (e.g., The Cubs have been playing over .500 since July) or if there already is an instance or two of more than in the sentence.
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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