Lindsey Witcherley

4 rules that are OK to break in commercial copywriting

by Lindsey Witcherley on February 21, 2013


It goes without saying that how your brand comes across in written communications will depend very much on its personality. But there are certain truths that apply to all types of commercial writing, because it all has one thing in common: its primary purpose is to sell.

Grammatical correctness is important. If a piece of writing contains errors they’ll jar with the reader and undermine confidence in your company and proposition.

But there are a few grammatical rules that can be detrimental to effective sales copy because they can make your reader trip over your phrasing. And with sales copy every second of attention is crucial - you can't afford to alienate your reader with phrasing that's difficult to digest.

There's one big caveat, however - think about your target audience and what their expectations are. If you're writing for educators, for example, splitting an infinitive or ending with a preposition can undermine your credibility. So feel free to bend these grammatical rules, but do proceed with caution.

1. Never start a sentence with a conjunction

The Chicago Manual of Style – an extremely well respected style guide – states that this rule ‘has no historical or grammatical foundation’. In fact, sentences that begin with and, or, but or so are invaluable for helping copy flow. This post contains three so far. You’ll find them in all sorts of other writing too – The Economist uses them, for example. They’re punchy and they help keep sentence length down, which is very important in sales copy.

2. Don’t use contractions

Many people think that ‘proper’ writing shouldn't contain words like we’re, I’ll, don’t or let’s. And it’s true that in very formal or academic writing their longer versions are usually preferred. But marketing copy is not academic writing. Reader comprehension is paramount – and contractions have been proven to aid understanding when readers are skimming copy. If the best sales copy sounds like one person speaking to another, and we use contractions in natural speech, doesn't it make sense to use them in our writing too?

3. Never split infinitives

You split an infinitive when you put an adverb between to and the verb – as in the famous example ‘to boldly go’. Latin grammarians first decided it wasn't a good idea in the 17th century and it’s been a topic of much discussion ever since. In fact there’s no logical reason not to do it, and even the Oxford English Dictionary says ‘avoiding a split infinitive can sound clumsy’. In commercial writing, the sensible approach is to go with what sounds most natural and makes most sense.

4. Don’t end sentences with a preposition

This is another rule with roots in the 17th century. A few eminent writers decreed that prepositions – words such as with, in, on, about, to etc – should always precede the object they are linked with. (Or, if we're doing it by the book, ‘the objects with which they are linked’). Like the split infinitive, there are occasions where ending with a preposition sounds more natural. And if there's no clear way to reword the phrase, you are often better off going for natural over pedantic.

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Lindsey Witcherley

This post was written by Lindsey Witcherley

As Inbound Director, Lindsey is responsible for driving overall inbound strategy and marketing automation.

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