If you read this post’s headline, and thought, “Should he have used a colon? What’s up with the two-fragment title? Does he mean ‘grammar’ or does he mean ‘style?’ Does he mean both?” then this is for you.
Here are my top ten rules for the grammar of advertising:
- All those lessons you once received from some generous grammarian? Lose ‘em. Academic standards don’t translate well to advertising, and more often than not, they’ll leave your writing feeling cold or overly formal. I don’t suggest recycling your preferred writing guide just yet, but it might be relegated to some lesser status (think paperweight, table leg prop, or projectile if need be).
- When you proof your grammar, consider interaction time. How long will someone engage with it? The numbers vary in different media, but it’s definitely less than you’d like. Copy needs to be quick, concise, and hard-hitting. If you only have a few seconds, you don’t want your audience spending time wondering about your comma-em-dash-colon jujitsu.
- Opt for the least distracting option possible. Your grammar ought to serve its purpose without ever attracting attention to itself. Strive for seamlessness. Always.
- Be sure your writing is likeable. You don’t want to sound like the audience’s pedantic eighth grade English teacher. You want to sound like an old friend. You can get away with the occasional semi-colon or em-dash, but use them too often and you’ll distance your reader.
- Don’t over-think your grammar. Your audience won’t, and you’ll probably make the situation worse. If you think you can’t finalize a headline until you’ve read Aristophanes of Byzantium’s writings on the origin of the comma, you’re wrong. Trust your instincts. If in doubt, ask someone for their first impression (and make sure it is, indeed, their first impression).
- If everyone else in the agency thinks your grammar looks weird, trust them, it looks weird. Save your perfect grammar for that article on etymology you’ve been meaning to write. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you’re “technically right.” And never, ever say, “I’m technically right.” Seriously. I can’t over-emphasize this.
- Buy your art director a beer (or glass of wine, as the case may be) and as often as possible. Sometimes copy looks good on paper, but bad in layout. This means tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. It has to be done, but it’s time consuming, and I suspect, always annoying. Be gracious. Buy drinks. Apologize.
- This may be obvious, but you ought to know the rules of grammar before you decide to break them. If you don’t know them, learn them. It will make you a better writer, and it will comfort your clients and earn you the respect of your colleagues.
- Think like a designer. Good design is useful, precise, efficient, attractive and seamless. Your grammar ought to be too. Like good design, it should never distract from the purpose of the ad. And if you can’t think like a designer, be sure you’re listening to yours. If he or she comes to you and says, “Are you sure you want this?” think about it. What they’re actually saying is, “This looks weird.” There’s a good chance it does. Make the decision as a team; the work will be better for it.
- Now, go young copywriter, write those fragments thoughtfully, use those em-dashes judiciously, and never, ever be afraid to move your periods directly beneath your ® symbols; it just looks better that way, and we all know it.
And for those ever-so-slightly obsessed with these matters, I know, I know, I addressed much, much more than grammar.