I am sure I’m opening up a can of worms here. And I know that we’ll get at least one complaint over this, but some times–at certain times–the worst grammar you can use is the very grammar your teachers always told you to observe: the correct grammar.
This is a bit of a breach from our normal business email oriented copywriting tips, but lately I’ve read a few stories of complaints over informal grammar and language use and I have come to the realization that a lot of people think that all writing should have perfect grammar.
That simply is not the case.
A professor of creative writing once told me that the worst thing you can ever do to your writing is get a PHD. He said that the institutionalization of grammar drives away the flavour of language, and that the key to real authorship is knowing grammar, but also knowing when to break it.
The truth is, the voice of the author depends on how they break the rules. Take the following passage:
“In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake”
Can you count the grammatical errors? Go ahead and count them, then stop, put the grammar out of your mind and read it. It’s a wonderfully written passageand is filled with the natural voice of the narrator (indeed McCarthy is considered one of the great American authors) .
Now as a business you don’t want this, right? You want perfect natural prose that speaks of the “professionalness” of your company. You want perfect grammar that shows the detail oriented nature of your staff. And if you work for a business that markets to other businesses you might want that, but only because its businessmen who think like that.
But casual readers don’t read based on rules. The only rules most people observe is the length they pause when hitting a comma, or period, the focus when reaching an emphasized word or a dash.
The truth is, voice is established not by how it follows rules, but how it breaks them. Casual grammar (particularly not caring about a lot of the advice that we give) defines a lot of what makes a voice casual and a casual voices, quite frankly, is more enjoyable to read. This isn’t to say that bad grammar is necessarily easier to read–anything is further from the case. However, smart use of casual grammar can give text a flavour simply unattainable without it, keeping the readers attention and coaxing them along. Take MarketingSherpa’s case study on lead nurturing (sorry, registration required). Amidst other changes, they found that making the tone more casual increased the conversion rate of their emails.
Thus, take our copywriting tips with a grain of salt. These aren’t rules to obey, they are rules to understand, and then–sometimes–to break.