Grammar: When Good Copy Goes Bad

Mistakes in grammar pass by many a writer’s radar but they can cause huge problems with marketing copy.

For example, see if you can spot the error in this sentence: “The operations team reported an upward trend in efficiency, training, productivity, morale, failure rates, and innovation.”  An “upward trend” in failure rates would mean that the rates increased, not exactly something to boast about. The writer could fix this problem by changing “failure rates” to “operating life” or by starting another sentence with information about downward trends.

Many problems with grammar come from relying on the grammar checker that comes with Word. That grammar checker seems to hate the word “who,” leading to a proliferation of sentences where people are referred to as things: “The engineers that are responsible for this innovation….” ought to be “The engineers who are responsible for this innovation.” But try telling that to Word.

Common mistakes in grammar include random changes in verb tense from past to present and back again, indecision about whether a company should refer to itself as “we” or “it,” lists that change in midstream from phrases to whole sentences, and lack of agreement between noun and verb.

Why is bad grammar a problem?

  • First, as shown in our initial example, it can send the exactly wrong message to your readers.
  • Second, bad grammar is one of the markers for online scams, according to the founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911. You don’t want your message to be tagged as spam.
  • Third, bad grammar sounds unprofessional. Yes, the misuse of “that” for “who” is so common now that most people will accept it; but it still sounds bad (or it ought to!) and interrupts the smooth flow of your message.
  • Fourth, more and more companies are international. Your readers who speak English as a second language (and any translation software they use) will struggle needlessly if your English is grammatically wrong.
  • Finally, how can your readers trust the quality of your products and services if you can’t even describe them in standard English?

If you aren’t confident in your grammar, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to review and edit your marketing or technical writing. Make sure your message goes out the way you intended.

Your Grammar Questions Answered (More or Less)

The most challenging grammar question I was ever asked came from a friend who spoke English as a second language. She asked, “Why does English need ‘the’ everywhere?” I wanted a reply that made sense for English–something more than “we borrowed ‘the’ from other languages.” I finally decided on this: English uses so many words as both nouns and verbs (for example, “vent,” “fight” or “post”) that “the” serves as an early-warning signal saying, “here comes a noun.” I doubt if many linguists would back me up, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Here are answers to a few more “oddest grammar questions”:

  1. Why does US English place quotation marks outside the period (…saying, “here comes a noun.”) and UK English place quotation marks inside the period (…saying, “here comes a noun”.) Answer: Because we are right and they are wrong. As you might have noticed, however, colons and semicolons belong outside the quotation marks; commas go inside along with periods; and question marks are sometimes in and sometimes out. Don’t ask.
  2. When should you spell out a number (thirty-two) and when should you use numerals (32)? Answer: Spell out one to ten and use numbers for 11 and above unless that creates an inconsistent list (we bought ten donuts, 32 cookies, six coffees, and 11 teas) or unless you are talking about money, time, or measurements ($1 million, 3 feet, 6 hours). Lawyers ignore this convention and use both numerals and spell-out figures at the same time–“the property cost $23,000 (twenty-three thousand dollars)”–but no one else does.
  3. How long should a sentence be? Answer: Short. If you write many long sentences in a row (that is, over 25 words), you will lose your audience as no one can retain information from the start of a 35 word sentence to the end without beginning to wonder what the original topic was and why they were ever interested in it in the first place, and the same thing is true of even short sentences with many long words (over 3 syllables) in a row. Short is better.
  4. What is the best online grammar checker? Answer: Paper. Use your dictionary and The Little Brown Compact Handbook. Online grammar checkers are right about 0% of the time.
  5. How do you know when you need an apostrophe s and when you don’t? Answer: You need the apostrophe s when something belongs to something else (we welcomed John Smith’s dog); you omit the apostrophe when you are talking about more than one (we welcomed the Smiths and their dog). A phrase like “people love our apple’s” is just plain wrong–it needs the plural (apples), not the possessive (apple’s). Unfortunately, the possessive of “its” (no apostrophe) is the possessive of “it” and the word “it’s” means “it is” (a verb). That has led many a store owner to announce “Its on sale now!” when its isn’t.

Got grammar questions? I’ve got answers!

Grammar Sticklers: What You Do Need to Worry About

My next blog will focus on grammar rules that have become more relaxed over the years but this blog lists a few rules of grammar that you break at peril. What is the peril? Misunderstandings, confusion, and an appearance of sloppiness that customers may feel indicates your overall quality of work.

Parallel construction is important. Parallel construction straightens out sentences like: “We create beautiful cabinets and installation.” Parallel construction demands two verbs, not a verb and a noun, on either side of the “and”: “We create beautiful cabinets and install them.” As a general rule, if your sentence contains an “and,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” or “yet,” you need parallel construction. Items on lists should also be parallel; for example, each item might begin with a verb rather than a mixture of nouns, verbs, prepositions, and articles.

Another important grammar rule is that of agreement between subject and verb: a plural subject (companies) takes a plural verb (succeed) and a singular subject (the company) takes a singular verb (succeeds). Electronic grammar checkers should never ever be trusted on issues of verb agreement. In fact, these days, whenever I see a disagreement between subject and verb, I can bet that an electronic grammar checker is to blame.

Although other grammar rules are important, the last item I’ll address is one I see constantly: overcapitalization. While acronyms are capitalized, the words they stand for are usually not capitalized. For example, HMI is an acronym for the generic term human/machine interface. There is no need to capital “human” or “machine” or “interface.” In fact, capitals should only be used for proper nouns: the names of specific people, companies, countries, books, boats, laws, religions, etc.

The use of capitals for emphasis is a lost cause from the start. If you capitalize everything, then nothing is important. Save capitals for the name of your company and its products. Those are the words you want readers to remember.

If concerns about grammar make writing stressful for you, please contact me. I’ll be glad to help.

Three Reasons Why Good Grammar Pays

So you thought your 5th grade English teacher was kidding when she said good grammar is important?

  1. Bad grammar can send your customers running from your emails or enewsletters. Recently, the founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911 gave consumers advice about how to detect (and avoid) online scams. One of his top clues to identify fake emails was the use of bad grammar. Because many online scammers and phishers are from outside the US, their grasp of English grammar is usually poor.
  2. Bad grammar can change what you meant to say into something entirely different. The US government once changed the taxes on all fruit and all trees by placing a comma in the wrong place–legislation meant only for “fruit trees” instead covered “fruit, trees.”
  3. Bad grammar signals unprofessional service, like a lemonade sign written in crayon. It might be charming in 8 year olds but not in grownups running a professional, reliable business that pays attention to details.

Online grammar checkers are worthless. If you aren’t confident in your grammar, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to review and edit your marketing or technical writing. Make sure your message goes out the way you intended and encourages potential customers to buy.

 

“What Is the Right Way to Say….”

One of the joys–and exasperations–of English is that it gives you so many ways to say what you mean, and all of them are correct. Or in other words: No matter what you want to say, there are dozens of ways to say it right.

However, there are limitations. An engineer once asked me for a single word that meant cost-effective, high quality and efficient. No such word exists. If he tried to create one, he would be asking customers to read his mind.

So how do you decide on the right way to say what you want to say?

First, follow the rules of grammar. Grammar gives writing its spine.

Second, listen to your ear, and write like you talk. If you read something out loud and it sounds stilted, pompous, long-winded and confusing, then it probably is stilted, pompous long-winded and confusing. When we talk to our customers, we use clear, familiar language that lets our excitement about our product or service shine through. Good writing is good talking.

Third, don’t take everyone’s advice. Because English is so flexible, heated debates can arise over a single comma or a single synonym. Writing by committee is impossible. Limit yourself to one or two trusted reviewers.

Fourth, know when to stop. Endless revising keeps your marketing message out of the marketplace. Your brochure, website, newsletter, blog or success story can’t start working for you until you send it out.

If English is driving you (and your reviewers) crazy, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’ll help you discover the best way to say what you most want to say.

Writing Skills for Managers: 3 Books Everyone Needs

Communication skills are a top item in any list of what managers need to succeed. But “communication” isn’t limited to talking–it embraces writing skills as well. No one expects a manager to return to sixth grade to learn when to use a past participle. But questions do arise and these three books will answer most of them:

  1. The Elements of Style by Wlliam Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. In less than 100 pages, this classic book answers your most frequent questions about usage and composition. It dives right in with 7 clear, definitive rules about forming possessives and using commas.
  2. The Little, Brown Compact Handbook, now in its eighth edition. If you have questions about grammar, research and documentation, formatting and special types of writing, grab this book. The glossary and index alone are worth the price.
  3. American Heritage Dictionary. Yes, you have spellcheck on your computer, and it is very good. But sometimes it’s faster and more accurate to use a dictionary, especially when you’re trying to decide between “effect” and “affect” or between “it’s” and “its.”

A note to the wise: while online spellcheckers are excellent, online grammar checkers are useless or worse. None of them give accurate grammatical help; in fact, you are usually better off doing the exact opposite of what they recommend.