Determining the balance between slang, colloquialisms, and typos
I recently read some Amazon reviews of a new book that was written by a very respected TV news personality. Many of the reviews mentioned that while the book was interesting, it was chock full of grammatical errors and other typos. That’s no small problem for a $30 tome from a major publisher.
So how could that happen? In advertising and marketing, sloppy grammar is becoming more and more of a problem. Or is it a problem? Do grammar, spelling, and punctuation matter? Or do we have creative license to let them all slide?
Everyone writes these days. I mean, everybody types. I have my own style in these columns — for example, I use lots of ‘em’ dashes. Fragments. And sentences that begin with conjunctions. My 8th grade English teacher would collapse into her gerunds if she came across some of my present-day writing.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, we can work on a thousand virtual versions of something before it needs to go live or get printed. It’s no surprise that typos and bad grammar are so pervasive given the speed at which we work these days. With different versions of copy docs and layouts flying fast through an agency, errors are bound to pop up. For copywriters, having a great proofreader can be worth gold. It can also be frustrating as hell if the proofers insist upon rewriting rather than mere proofreading.
The crafting of marketing and advertising copy isn’t a linear process. I’m reminded of a conference call I was on with several client “stakeholders,” many of whom were located in different countries and were non-native English speakers. I cringed as they attempted to copyedit and rewrite a piece I was working on. It was exactly the kind of clusterf—k you’d think it would be.
The rise of texting, social media, and website comment sections mean there’s more language being written than ever before. Along with impulsive typing on small devices, our grammar has collectively gotten worse. Brevity is frequently appreciated, but it’s amazingly easy to hit “send” before really examining what we’re sending. And relying on spell-check is basically a condom — highly effective but not foolproof.
Copywriters, creative directors, and their account management partners don’t have to take a spelling or grammar test to get their jobs. So while our grammar standards get lower in everyday use, the sloppiness trickles into the work. With shorter and shorter deadlines, mistakes can slip by several pairs of eyes unnoticed. The endless quest to churn out quick pieces of content isn’t helping matters, either.
There’s also a sense of blindness that affects us in reading our own work. One very handy trick is to print out what you’re working on, take a little walk, sit down, and re-read it. Because in a different context, it’ll feel fresh. The screen can play tricks on your eyes.
If you’re a writer in advertising or marketing, you have to be hypervigilant. Clients are all too eager to make their own copy suggestions. Every writer has heard someone preface a suggestion with, “I’m not a writer, but…” When the subject is technical or the piece is long-form, the suggestions can be helpful. They can also be amateurish. There’s a struggle as to whether to rework it correctly or take the client’s advice verbatim.
But it’s not like strict English class rules apply to advertising and marketing. Slang or invented words can work quite effectively. There are still those naysayers who believe “Think Different” is improper English and shouldn’t have been used, but that didn’t stop Apple. It's often hard to hell the difference between bad grammar and unconventional phrasing used for creative effect.
Beyond the language, how writing gets displayed has also evolved. Writers who work in digital media force themselves to make paragraphs and sentences shorter and more bite-sized because they’re easier to read online. A novel or a lengthy magazine article doesn’t require such short bursts. Today’s marketing requires a new way of thinking as well as writing.
Are there consequences to loosening our grammar and spelling standards? Frankly, a generation weaned on text messages and emojis may simply not care. But this problem isn’t all on the young’uns in our business. Don’t assume that a CMO, an agency president, or a millionaire client has the ability to spell or write any better than a second grader.
I can tell you one thing for certain: The fine print of any brand contest, the terms and conditions of any cell phone contract you sign, and the privacy clauses of any app you download have been proofread many times over. Lawyers know how to do that pretty well.
Perhaps we could take a lesson from them, and write as if we’d get sued for our grammatical mistakes. We’d certainly be more careful.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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