Writing With Freedom

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In the last post I talked about how we are sometimes corrected on what is perceived as ‘improper’ use of spoken language and grammar, and how that’s patently ridiculous in social and informal situations.

In this post I am going to touch on the use of language in writing - specifically, commercial writing. The situation here is more nuanced, but my argument is fundamentally the same. Context and purpose are everything.

First, there are no rules. There are conventions and guidelines, but it is misleading to think of language in terms of hard and fast rules.

Of course, there is grammar. That exists. There is spelling, and punctuation too, and there are common conventions around all of these things. There are also many useful, informative resources out there to lean on when you’re unsure - in my last post I referred to Grammar Girl’s website. Grammar Girl - Mignon Fogarty - is inspirational (I speak personally here) and has a great approach to language. She “believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study”. But even here, she refers to ‘rules’.

The problem with a rules-based approach to language is that it can get you tied up in knots unnecessarily - particularly if you are creating commercial content - web copy, marketing emails, B2B or UX content. Rules are inflexible. Language, people, customers - they are not.

You should think of SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) as more of a map than a set of rules. It can show you where to go, and there are some tried and tested routes that you definitely want to stick to in a few clearly defined situations (job applications, white papers, letters to shareholders and so on), but sometimes it’s OK to screw up the map. To get sticky fingers all over it. To wander off into large, unexplored grey areas. Sure, you should give it some respect - going too far off the beaten track can waste precious hours, or even bring you (reputational) harm. But it’s a map, not a holy text. It demands to be revisited, revised and expanded, over and over, because language is never static. Give it too much deference and you fundamentally misunderstand it, at the risk of being left behind by those who are willing to try new things.

Don’t get me wrong - grammar encourages (sometimes irresistibly) certain patterns. If we randomly mixed up all the words in any given sentence the result would often be nonsense. But does that mean that we have to stick to a prescribed word order for every sentence we produce? If that were true, Yoda would never have become the cultural icon that he is - understood his speech, we would not have.

It’s the same across the SPAG board. The ‘rules’ of spelling dictate that we spell a continuous verb with a ‘g’ at the end, as in ‘loving’, or ‘licking’. Syntax (the way sentences are constructed) demands that a proper sentence should always include at least a subject and a verb, as in ‘I ate’ or ‘She sang’.

In writing that adheres to 'proper' syntax you could certainly never have a complete sentence containing only a verb and an adjective, such as ‘Drive red’, or ‘Sing beautiful’. If you don’t follow the rules, you risk looking ridiculous and creating a reputation for sloppiness.

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But ‘sloppiness’ in their language use is not something the fast food giants care about. Creating a sense of liveliness, fun, enthusiasm and appetite is more important.

You don’t create a sense of fun by agonizing over ‘correct’ sentence structure. Or capital letters and full stops, come to that.

So grammar gives us important guidelines, but that’s all they are. If you get too wrapped up in what you think you should be doing there’s always a danger that you’ll lose sight of what you were trying to achieve in the first place.

 This is especially true for advertising and marketing. Have you ever tried to capture a particular voice or tone in a B2B email or a customer-facing piece of copy, only to lose the essence of the product because you felt trapped into conforming to a certain grammatical ‘rule’ or level of formality?

Next time you’re creating content and find yourself questioning usage, consider the context before tying yourself up in knots. Trying to express something freely and with verve while simultaneously conforming to all the rules you think you should be following is, often as not, an exercise in futility.

In my next post I’ll cover the three key things you certainly should consider when creating new content before you start worrying about perfect grammar.

For now, take another look at the featured image at the top of this post, currently being displayed on billboards around San Francisco, and consider a couple of things:

1. Billboards reach potentially millions of people every day.

2. Banks are traditionally serious and formal institutions.

Combine those factors and you might expect a banking organization to create a verbose appeal to new customers using suitably formal language that focuses on their reputation, reliability or good moral compass. Instead Varo went for simplicity, playfulness, sarcasm and pop culture.