Grammar. Don't. Matter.

Great Syntax is No Substitute for Great Communication.

Perfect Grammar Not Needed
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Anyone with an English degree will take one look at the headline and feel either appalled, nauseous or angry. It's not very good. Come to think of it, that last sentence wasn't, either.

Or this one.

And this one it pretty awful to be honest (it starts with a dreaded preposition; ouch.  

But in the world of advertising, marketing and design, the most important aspect of the work is communication. Does it get the message across successfully?

Perfect Grammar Is NOT Perfect Communication

In advertising, it just doesn't even come close. Grammar is always secondary to message. 

A sentence that is structured beautifully, obeying all the laws, and bylaws, of the English language, is not what advertising is all about. In fact, in advertising you don't even need to use real words, good sentence structure, and proper punctuation, or obey any of the rules that were drummed into you in school.

What is paramount is getting the message across, not impressing people with your superior command of the English language (or whatever other language you're advertising in). It's the be all and end all. It's the whole shooting match. Grammar has as much importance in advertising as good penmanship has in graffiti.

Some Examples of Great Advertising with Poor Grammar

Let's start with some of the most obvious ones, and they're some of the most powerful phrases ever to come out of an advertising agency.

  • Got Milk?
    Grammatically, that's not good at all. If you were to put that through the grammar filter, it would come out as something more like "Do You Have Milk?" But that's dry, and awful. Got Milk? was catchy, simple and created a craze. It helped sell a lot of milk, and was endorsed by many major celebrities.
  • Think Different - Apple
    If it were 100% correct, it would be Think Differently. Again, that's not a strong piece of communication. Tonally, it has less teeth. It's stiff. Boring. Think Different was bold and brave.
  • Make Summer Funner - Target
    A lovely little campaign from a few years ago. Grammatically speaking, it's an F. But "Make Summer More Fun" is bland. The incorrect version works.
  • The Few. The Proud. The Marines. - U.S. Marine Corps.
    Three two-word sentences back-to-back? That's not good. But it is. A good, simple sentence should have at least a subject and a predicate. However, once again the rules have been broken to create a phrase with impact.
  • Spread The Happy - Nutella
    A widely-used trick in advertising is to turn an adjective into a noun. A perfect example comes from Nutella, which took a common phrase (spread happiness) into something much more memorable and punchy. Because of this, it stood out.
  • To Each Their Own - Honda
    That phrase is like nails on a chalkboard to anyone that knows anything about the rules of grammar. For this phrase to be correct, it should be either "To Each His Own" or "To Each Her Own." Each is singular, their is plural, therefore the copy line is inaccurate. But...who cares? It got the point across in a fun way.
  • Rethink Possible - AT&T
    Again, grammar buffs will look at that one and scream. It should really be "Rethink What Is Possible" but the copywriter and art director would have bored the client with that one. A simple exercise in concision turned the phrase into something catchy, even though it was clearly not grammatically correct.
  • Less Sugar, Less Bottles - SodaStream
    We all know that the second half of that tagline is wrong. It should say "fewer bottles," but that would not have been as fun. The alliteration helps with the memorability, and it still gets across the idea. Anyone that's stood in line at the "15 items or less" checkout knows what it means, even though it's not accurate. And in advertising, it's totally OK to be wrong.

It would be easy to go on and on with examples. You are probably thinking of your own right now, or have written some. The point is, good grammar is for literature, not advertising. (Unless, of course, you're advertising a series of books or websites that teach perfect grammar...and even then, you may want to use bad grammar to draw people in).

Write To Your Audience, Not Your English Teacher

As a copywriter, or anyone tasked with writing headlines, taglines and copy, the most important rule is to write to a specific target audience. If you're writing something for lovers of Western movies, speak the lingo. If you're writing to tweens, know how they talk to each other. If you're texting, learn to text.

It's important NEVER to impose your perfect grasp of the English language on your audience. It will be a barrier to communication, and it will make you come across as overbearing, out of touch, or coming from a different world. You do not want to be seen as elitist or an authority figure. You want the quickest, easiest route into the mind of the consumer. Any additional translation required will not help your cause.

Do You Need To Know The Rules Before You Break Them?

It doesn't hurt, but it's not essential.

Once, before the advertising boom in the 80s, agencies were filled with writers who had English degrees. That changed when people trained specifically to be advertising copywriters. The rules learned by English majors are not required for good copy. And so, these days, many copywriters don't know how to conjugate verbs or write solid compound sentences.

Is that bad? No. Remember, communication is key. But when the time comes to write in perfect prose for a particular ad or direct mail piece, the copywriter with a fabulous grasp of the English language will have the edge.

Mistakes Do Not Count

Before you go thinking that all grammar knowledge should be left at the door, remember that this is a business involving skilled writers and designers. They know the rules they are breaking, and they have weighed the pros and cons before moving forward. 

Spelling errors, misplaced punctuation, and poorly-worded copy lines cannot be excused with "grammar doesn't matter." If you publish anything with a misspelled word, your credibility (or your client's) will be in the toilet for a while. If you interchange their, they're, and there incorrectly, you're in big trouble. Know the rules, break them with care.