Three Rules of English that good copy frequently breaks (and why it’s necessary to do so)

You’ve heard the saying, You have to know the rules before you can break them.

It’s absolutely true when it comes to advertising copy.

Writing a good ad (or any marketing message) requires you to understand sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, etc.

You, know…all the stuff crotchety Mrs. Schneider drilled into your head in high school English class. Or tried to.

But readable copy often breaks Mrs. Schneider’s beloved rules.

In fact, for copy to be “conversational” in tone, breaking them is practically a requirement.

Why? Because people break the rules all the time when they speak.

So you’ll need to break some rules too…if you want your message to be perceived as one human speaking to another.

This doesn’t, however, give us license to butcher the king’s English. The rules we can break are limited to a mere three.

Here they are, along with justification for breaking them:

1. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction (such as “and,” “but” or “or.”).

Copywriters break this rule all the time. And with good reason. Conjunctions provide a connection between two thoughts. But in speech people don’t always connect those two thoughts in a single sentence. They often split them up. And since copywriters strive to write in a way that mirrors the way people talk, it’s natural to do the same in copy.

But that’s not the only reason for putting an “and” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence. Doing so also lets us chop long sentences into two shorter ones that are easier to read.

Take this one, for example:

Going to the movies is a favorite pastime of many Americans, but the price of seeing a movie, combined with their poor quality of late, has many people opting to stay home.

It’s not exactly a run-on. Still it can be made a little less daunting for the reader if it’s divided in two.

Going to the movies is a favorite pastime of many Americans. But the price of seeing a movie, combined with their poor quality of late, has many people opting to stay home.

It’s a minor change, yes, but it makes the copy just a little easier for the reader. And every little bit helps.

2. Write in complete sentences, not fragments.

Complete sentences are great for annual reports and college term papers, but adhering to this rule in copywriting can lead to stiff, unnatural-sounding copy and dull, run-on sentences, such as this example:

Established in 1911 by brothers Bob and Frank Widget, Widget Investments is a respected global player with holdings around the world, a stake in numerous established business enterprises, and assets totaling $100 billion, all driven by a philosophy that always keeps us striving to reach higher, acquire more and do better.

Who’d want to wade through all that? Shorter sentences and liberal use of fragments make the message more palatable:

Widget Investments was established in 1911 by brothers Bob and Frank Widget. Today it’s a respected global player. One with holdings around the world. A stake in numerous established business enterprises. And assets totaling $100 billion. All driven by a philosophy that keeps us striving. To reach higher. Acquire more. Do better.

Ah, that’s better. The spaces between sentences give the copy – and the reader – a chance to breathe. So unless your readers positively adore lengthy Dickensian prose, opt for shorter sentences and fragments as necessary.

3. Don’t use slang.

Use discretion when breaking this one. It’s true that copy directed toward a particular audience has to speak their language. And sometimes that means adopting their lingo. But be warned: Don’t attempt this unless you’re sure you can pull it off. Nothing kills credibility faster than getting caught trying to fake authenticity.

So let’s say you want to announce to an audience of tech-savvy 20-somethings that your company has just developed a new application for the iPhone. You’ll have to judge whether it’s wiser to 1) describe the features and benefits of this outstanding iPhone application or to 2) give ’em the 411 on this killer iPhone app.

Likewise, you can decide whether it’s better to tell a hip youth audience that you’re going to 1) offer them some free merchandise or that you’ll 2) hook them up with some freebie swag.

You feel me?

As in all cases of rule-breaking, good judgment should be used. The goal isn’t to see how many rules you can break, it’s to make the communication as effortless as possible. So take some creative license, just don’t abuse it.

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