Two grammatical errors you SHOULD be making in your copy
October 26, 2016 • Glenn Murray
Rules are great. Blind adherence to the rules? Not so much.
As a copywriter, you’re constantly breaking rules. You’re a grammar rebel. You have to be. Otherwise you bore the shit out of people and they go buy from someone else. Sure, you need to know the rules before you break them, but you definitely can’t be both a prescriptive grammarian and a copywriter. (Or at least wear both hats at once.)
Here’s an example…
“I’m only going to give you one chance.”
Sounds fine, right? You probably heard it from your dad a thousand times, growing up.
But it’s actually grammatically incorrect. Or at least, semantically ambiguous. Why? Because when I say it, I mean, “you get just one chance”. But what I’m technically saying is something potentially different. With the “only” where it is, it actually applies to the “give”, not to the “one chance”. i.e. “I’m only going to give…”. It implies that there are other alternatives, but you’re not going to get them. Put another way, it could be preceded by, “I could take or I could lend, but…” to form this:
“I could take or I could lend, but I’m only going to give you one chance.”
So even though what I mean is you get just one chance, the reader could interpret my meaning as something like this:
“I’ll give you a chance, but I won’t lend it.”
See what I mean?
Here’s the grammatically correct way to write this sentence:
“I’m going to give you only one chance.”
But here’s the catch: can you imagine your dad saying that? Especially when it would probably be growled through gritted teeth and closely followed by, “I’m going to come down on you like a ton of bricks!”.
That’s just not how most people speak.
And when you’re writing copy, your goal isn’t to impress people with your knowledge of grammar; your goal is to keep them reading. To make it easy for them. If you construct something that’s grammatically correct, but practically uncommon, they’ll notice. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, they’ll find it jarring. And that may be all they need to stop reading.
“Here’s a few of them.”
This is grammatically incorrect because “a few” means a small number more than one. And just as you wouldn’t say, “here is nine boys”, technically, you shouldn’t say, “here is a few of them” or, by extension, the contracted version: “here’s a few of them”.
The technically correct way to say it is:
“Here are a few of them.”
But again, sometimes the grammatically incorrect way is the right way for the reader. It requires more vocal effort to say “here are a” than to say “here’s a”. And a good rule of thumb is that if something would be hard to say, it’s probably going to be hard to read. Usually it’ll just stick out and sound stuffy.
Which is the last thing you want, as a copywriter. You want people to be immersed in your message, not focusing on the medium.
Of course, you shouldn’t break these rules blindly either! In some (rare) cases, breaking the rules just makes you sound lazy or uneducated.
Long story short? Write for your audience, not your English teacher.