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!

The Danger of Questions in Marketing Content

Why should you read this blog post? I know the answer I’d like. Which makes that question an hypophora–a rhetorical question that you aren’t supposed to answer because I’m just going to go ahead and tell you: You should read this blog post to prevent major problems with your marketing content–and to discover why you might need a freelance writer like (ahem) me.

The problem with questions, especially at the beginning of marketing copy, is that they very well may be answered in a way you don’t like. “Got milk?” is a great question because either way–yes or no–the point has been made. You need milk. “Why not buy milk?” is a poor question because the most likely answer is: “I don’t want to.”

The “why not” construction has another drawback–it introduces a negative; for example, “Why not use our company?” You should avoid any question that challenges readers to list the reasons for not using you.

Questions that threaten the reader are another barrier to communication. “Do you want to deplete your bones of calcium? Did you know that poor calcium intake leads to osteoporosis?” You will gain the readers who already worry about the subject but you will lose those who do not want to think about it. There’s a reason why coffin builders avoid asking, “Are you ready to be buried?”

Which brings us to good questions. Good questions demand a “yes.” The quicker your readers get used to answering “yes” to your marketing pitch, the more likely they are to keep answering “yes,” especially when you ask for a sale. “Do you like milk?” is a poor question because it shuts down the conversation with a quick “no.” A better question is “Do you have a favorite way to use milk?” Almost everyone uses some milk in some way–in their coffee, in baking, to scramble eggs and so on. Even if they don’t, they may want to hear about new ways to use milk.

The best questions in marketing collateral actively engage readers and prompt them to read on: “What is the number one drink in the world?” “What are the top 3 benefits of milk?” Those questions open up a conversation instead of closing it down and they appeal to your readers’ curiosity.

Got questions? Just make sure you want to hear the answers.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications in 1999 to help business owners communicate with their customers in clear, accurate, passionate words.