Can Marketing Break the Grammar Rules?

marketing break the grammar rulesI won second prize in a really difficult grammar contest against a room full of PR agency owners and CEOs.  I like to talk about that as frequently as possible.

I almost didn’t get married because in our very first argument in the first month we were dating, I interrupted Patrick to tell him “also too” is redundant. He became so infuriated, he almost walked out the door never to be seen again.

So when the client I’m working with suggested a tagline that uses the word “less” when it should be “fewer,” I got ready to put up a fight. Then they asked me if it’s really important to be grammatically proper. Look at Apple and “Think Different.” Look at all the signs in the grocery store express lines that state, “15 items or less.”

I stopped to think about it and thought I’m going to be twitchy for months if we use this. How can I stand by it?

So I talked to some colleagues and friends I respect and I turned to Facebook (If it’s spoken on Facebook, it must be truth). I received a mixed bag of feedback but some of the sticklers – the ones just like me – responded with “break the rules if it makes sense.”

And She Flip Flops

I love language. So I’m all for preserving it and abiding by the rules. However, I also like to start sentences with “and,” although I draw the line at ending a sentence with a preposition.

We bemoan losing our language to texting and social media with hashtags and acronyms because we’re communicating with different limitations now; limited characters and at a faster pace.

There’s a difference between losing our language and evolving it. I don’t know where that line lives. Adding LOL to the dictionary might be on the wrong side of the tracks. Taking the hyphen out of email is on the right side. But who gets to decide?

And then there is the idea of just plain breaking the rules because you’re more concerned with moving product than making us English geeks feel happy. Why not bend a rule if the flow is much better?

My friend Jon Goldberg of Reputation Architects said he chuckles every time he sees the “15 items or fewer” sign in his grammatically proper grocery store.

Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

What I love about language and writing is the flow; putting words together and the sound and stories they elicit. There is a rhythm and that’s why it’s always important to read your writing out loud.

Creating a positioning statement might be one of the greater language challenges. You have to make an emotional connection with the audience in a split second. When you have four to six words to tell the story of your service or product, grammar be damned – let’s get the word across at all costs.

Ken Mueller pointed out Pennsylvania’s slogan: “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania ” I had to stop and read it a second time – it didn’t sound wrong – until I realized the error and then I thought “OW” but it’s speaking the language of the consumer and it gets the point across. How about “Got Milk?”

Our language is evolving because we use it differently. and it must therefore adapt. Just like religion, antiquated laws, and Blockbuster Video should adapt, our language must do so as well in order to serve us in our current needs and challenges.

So we write in shorter sentences and paragraphs. We use a more informal, conversational lexicon. Contractions become the norm. We start paragraphs with the word “so.”

We have to get a message across in fewer words to an easily distracted, very rushed audience who probably won’t even notice we said “less” rather than “fewer” and certainly won’t boycott the product over it. Although it will give some the pleasure to point out our error, in which case we can be happy we provided them that experience.

My twitch will subside soon, and I tossed my vote in the hat for “less.” In this sense, it just has better flow and rhythm.

Can Marketing Break the Grammar Rules?

I’d love to hear your take. Break the rules or abide?

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  • Jason Konopinski

    Language is a wonderfully fluid thing. I personally love watching the way that grammar and syntax “rules” are being rewritten through usage.

    • Lisa Gerber

      Love the way you put it – being fluid. We don’t talk like Shakespeare did anymore – language will evolve, not die!

  • Josh

    Sometimes you have to go along to get along. Strunk and Wilder are good in the classroom but sometimes in the real world you need to tell them to go away for a while.

    Besides language does evolve and that is not a bad thing.

    • Lisa Gerber

      Yep – totally agree.

    • AmyVernon

      Strunk and White. :) (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

      • Josh

        I was referring to the Blazing Saddles edition of grammar which covers authentic frontier gibberish. 😉

        • AmyVernon

          Ah, in that case, carry on. 😉

  • Lisa Gerber

    You know what? I’ve never been a fan of poetry. I don’t know why – maybe because I never understand it. How does it help your prose?

    • Erin Feldman

      I didn’t like poetry, either, until a professor helped me into it. Poetry makes me more conscious of sound and rhythm. It also helps me to break the rules. It broke me out of the academic writing and into a writing style that was all my own. It also led me to explore different ways of writing the essay form.

      Some prose can do the same thing in terms of sound, rhythm, and form, but it’s not always as present as it is in poetry.

      • Lisa Gerber

        I might have to give poetry another try. Love what you said.

  • Allen Mireles

    I love the fluidity of language and am fascinated in the evolution of how we use words. There are times when it is painful to observe but other times when it’s fun to break rules, start sentences with “and” and come up with creative-sentences-that-run-on-and-on-to-make-a-point. Or not. It also depends on where and how you are contemplating breaking a rule, I suppose. What works as a comment on a blog, a blog post or a Facebook update, might be less well received in an academic journal or scholarly article.

    • Lisa Gerber

      Hi!!!!! :)
      yeah – I like that – take artistic license with the language.

  • AmyVernon

    The best teacher I had in four years of college (journalism school) was my freshman year lab instructor for our Basic Writing class. First day, he gave us a huge packet of 100 spelling/grammar/structure rules we could not break. However, we *could* break them if we simply hand-wrote the abbreviation “i.v.” next the spot in the text where we’d broken the rule.

    “i.v.” stood for “intentional violation.”

    The idea was, if we *knew* we were breaking the rule, we were allowed to do it. Even if he didn’t agree it worked in that case, he allowed us, because if we knew the rule we were breaking, we had thought about it.

    I’ve taken that with me over the last 20+ years. You’re allowed to break the rules if you know you’re breaking them and have a reason to (i.v.).

    • Roberta

      I hope that professor knows what a difference he made… and i.v. is
      just the perfect abbreviation. The rules are a road map and not the
      road. The language is the road and whether writing poetry or selling
      soup online, language is how writers communicate and knowing the rules
      well enough to break them on purpose is part of the drill. What a great
      tip he gave you– like gold.

      The internet is full of
      dreary, badly written content. It is a joy to come across people who
      know and care about clear, vibrant communication. I’m grabbing the feed
      for this blog and I always love reading whatever you post, Amy.

      • AmyVernon

        He and I have kept in touch always, so he knows. :) One of the best journalists & writers I’ve ever known.

        • Lisa Gerber

          Amy, I was enjoying your story, nodding, and got to the end only to laugh out loud at the i.v. Awesome. I should put i.v. at the end of the tagline!

      • Lisa Gerber

        Hi Roberta! thanks for subscribing to the feed. nice to have you here and thanks to Amy for directing you.
        I love all the validation I’m getting by throwing my vote in for poor grammar. :)

  • Shonali Burke

    Break it if it makes sense and gets the point across (as you so eloquently describe). But I think it’s always good to know the “rules”… though I don’t remember many of the actual rules, I have an innate instinct with language (not boasting, I just do) – so if I’m breaking a rule, I know why I’m doing it.

    • Lisa Gerber

      Did you ever take the quiz with Darryl Salerno at Counselors Academy? I don’t think you were in that session last year. Even though I won second place, we all perform abysmally. (I didn’t want to include that nugget in the post, of course. ) It’s amazing how many rules are out there we didn’t even know about! :)

  • Brian D. Meeks

    I have always been strong at math. I get driven insane when I find out someone has a PHd in Medicinal Chemistry but doesn’t know her times tables through nine and couldn’t figure out ten percent of 120 in her head.

    Spelling and punctuation have been areas where I struggled. It didn’t bother me when other people made mistakes because I did the same thing. One day, a friend pointed out that I always misspelled definitely (I used the less common definately…it sounded right). I was shocked because that was one of the words I thought I was knew.

    Since then I’ve tried to improve. I’ve succeeded. The comma has been another area where I have struggled. I keep working on that pesky bit of punctuation. I do love the Oxford comma, though. I digress.

    The point is I think it is too easy to just accept what we are bad at instead of trying to improve. I did it for decades and I’m a little ashamed. Why can’t people try to work on their weaknesses instead of lobbying the world to be stupider to make them feel better?

    If I had a vote I would say we should go with correct grammar.

    On another note, what about words that get used incorrectly so often that the dictionary people change the meaning? Hate it!

    Peruse…it means to read carefully for content…NOT skim.
    Enormity…is a state of pure evil…NOT size.
    Decimate…to kill one in ten (10%)…NOT a majority

    These are words I’ve been ranting about for over a decade and now if one looks them up online the offending definition is included. Grrrr.

    Sorry for the rant. I really enjoyed your post and I feel much better now.

    (In the interest of my own edification, why aren’t we supposed to start a paragraph with “So,”? I didn’t know that rule, but I’d like to learn.)

    • Lisa Gerber

      Brian! How did I miss this comment, er, blog post in a comment? LOL. First of all, I had no idea decimate was 10% and not a majority.
      Also, you should have been in this grammar/usage contest I mentioned above. It was really really hard. In fact, we all did poorly, I just did way less poorly than everyone else. And to answer your question about “so,” actually, that’s a good question.
      I think it’s an odd way to start a paragraph maybe because it’s so informal which really contradicts everything I ever talk about because we don’t write in formal language anymore. I always do it – it just feels like I shouldn’t be. How’s that for an answer?

  • Tarah Neujahr

    Wonderfully written, Lisa. Although, I respectfully disagree about ending a sentence with a preposition. “This is errant pedantry up with which I will not put.” (I’m sure we’ve all heard it before, but thank you, Sir Churchill!)

    There’s a great book by Constance Hale called “Sin and Syntax,” which reviews grammar rules and how to break them with eloquence. She covers a lot of the same points you do and specifically recalls a similar episode with “fewer” and “less.” It’s worth a look.

    • Lisa Gerber

      Hi Tarah!!! :)
      That’s hilarious – I’ve never heard that quote from Churchill. I think we can all chose the rules we love or hate and which ones we want to break or not.

      Going to check out that book. I’ve been meaning to, actually. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Dave Clark

        It is a funny remark — but almost certainly NOT by Churchill, though I could almost wish it were (and imagine it were, too).

        See, for example:

        Of course, “put up with” is a phrasal verb, and the particles of a phrasal verb do not follow the same rules as prepositions, so this remark would qualify as a “hypercorrection” — but I’m sure that whoever made the remark knew that too and enjoyed that additional irony.

  • Dave Clark

    I’m being distracted from your main point — whether and when to break ‘rules’ — by your initial example. The whole “less” vs “fewer” thing is a superstition. The applicability of “fewer” is a subset of the applicability of “less”, rather than being disjoint. A situation in which “fewer” COULD be used doesn’t automatically become a situation in which it SHOULD be used. You may argue that “fewer” would be *better* — and I might agree with you — but if you argue that “less” is *wrong* in these contexts then I beg to differ.

    If you have “fewer items”, you have “less shopping”, so you can read “15 items or less” as “15 items or less SHOPPING”, rather than “15 items or less ITEMS”, if your ear calls out for a non-countable noun for “less” to govern. The other common construction of this form — “Less than 15 items” — is particularly ugly, but I would still hold out against calling it “wrong”. Unless, of course, you take the view that ugly language usage IS wrong, in which case I would submit that there are far bigger issues than “fewer”/”less” out there to tackle…!

    • Lisa Gerber

      well then, Dave, you just single-handedly let me off the hook for allowing the tagline. So thank you. and thanks for stopping by. :)

  • Dan Polley

    I think ending a sentence with a preposition is perfectly OK.

    • Lisa Gerber

      I’m beginning to change my ways. :)