This week, the Times starts a series of features on “grammar for grown ups”, which the paper intends to continue each day this week. The author, John Sutherland is a professor of English Literature at UCL, and puts forward grammatical conundrums for readers to think about.
The idea is to work out what the grammatical ‘error’ is in some of the world’s most famous phrases from films, books and speeches. For example, John asks what the grammatical error is in Star Trek’s “To boldly go where no man has gone before…”, George Bush’s ’92 slogan “Who do you trust”, and extracts from the Bible like “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” You get the picture.
Grammar nerds, myself included, would be quick to point out what the phrases should be if we were to be all ‘correct’ about things. We’ve all been taught not to split infinitives, use “who” and “whom” in the correct context, and not begin a sentence with a conjunction.
But when it comes to marketing and PR copy, I’d happily say ignore John’s article in the Times yesterday — and, in fact, just chuck the whole rulebook out the window. I would argue that the most important part of marketing and PR copy is readability and clarity, and not necessarily the rules of grammar themselves.
Grammar can get in the way of readability
If we were to follow grammar rules to the letter in writing, madness would ensue. Winston Churchill once famously said: “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!” And that’s just the problem; arrant pedantry puts people off, which is the last thing you want to be doing with copy. If I were to correct everybody on their grammar, less people would like me… Oh… sorry, fewer people.
I think sometimes we forget that the secondary purpose of our copy is to entertain as well as inform or educate. Writing pompously, pretentiously or formally goes a long way to ensuring we fail on the ‘entertainment’ front. If we bore our audience, they’ll switch off and ignore all that lovely messaging you’ve worked so hard to craft. So if we let grammar get in the way of meaning and being ‘interesting’, we have to draw the line between what’s technically correct and what’s readable and therefore more understandable.
Readability is so important that I would argue for writing in the way that we speak. Short punchier sentences with everyday words and phrases are much more effective than complex syntax (sentence structure) and unnecessary jargon (ha, see what I did there?). I’ve only been in PR for a couple of years and I’m already bored to death of phrases like “enable cost savings” when “save money” would do, and “facilitate a meeting” when “set up a meeting” would do. I’m going to be a truly miserable human being in 10 years time if nothing has changed!
Balance readability with clarity
Going back to Sutherland’s article in the Times yesterday, number 13 on the list is Bill Clinton’s famous denial “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” I’m struggling to work out why this one makes the list. It’s not ungrammatical — merely vague. Sutherland says, and I quote, “The mistake Slippery Willie makes is that he should have said: ‘I did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky.’” Sure Mr Sutherland, he should have. But vagueness does not equal grammar, which leads me on to my next point.
Copy should do its best to avoid a situation where the reader feels the need to ask lots of questions. In other words be clear. In speech we use a lot of context-dependent references like “this means you’ll need to…” and “that will have an effect on…”, and passive sentences like “this was done without my permission”. If the person we’re speaking to doesn’t know what the word “this” and “that” refer to exactly, or can’t work out the subject of the sentence for themselves, the speaker is there to help.
But because the writer isn’t there to help if the reader doesn’t understand the copy, it’s even more important to be clear first time around. Like clichés, I try to avoid deictic references and passives like the plague, and try not to take the reader’s knowledge — or lack of — for granted. If they’re anything like as lazy as I am, they’re not going to spend too much brainpower working out what I mean by “this” and “that” or working out who you mean has “done something without permission”. They’ll probably switch off and go elsewhere for their information. I know I would.
Writing is difficult — believe me
When we focus on readability too much, we let clarity suffer. And when we focus on clarity too much we let readability suffer. Ensuring that the two go hand in hand in copy is one of the greatest challenges in writing — and actually makes writing one of the hardest parts of a PR’s job. Anybody who thinks writing is easy is either a fool or JK Rowling. Oh, and it’s okay to split an infinitive by the way. I don’t care what professor John Sutherland says.