What your English Teacher Can?t Teach You About Writing Copy

June 20th, 2005 by Bob Bly

English teachers and copywriters have different goals, which is why you should never let an English teacher review or edit your copy.

The English teacher?s goal is to be grammatically correct. The copywriter?s goal is to sell.

When the two conflict, give selling priority over grammar.

For instance, several English teachers told me that one of copywriting?s most popular phrases, ?free gift,? is redundant. After all, what gift isn?t free?

But when a direct marketer tested a mailing with ?free gift? vs. ?gift,? not only did omitting the ?free? depress response ? but recipients actually called to ask ?Is the gift free??

And in his book ?Crowning the Customer? (Ralphel Publishing), supermarket owner Fergal Quinn tells the following story:

?We have always given away bones for customers? dogs, and at one stage put up a sign: ?WOOF! Take home some bones for your dog.?

?One day a shopper said, ?I don?t shop here for my meat. I go to the butchers down the road, because they give me free bones for my dog.?

?’But they do that here,? other customers chorused. ?We even have a sign about it,? I added.

??Oh, I saw the sign,? she said, ?But it never said the bones were free.??

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 20th, 2005 at 9:10 am and is filed under Direct Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

58 responses about “What your English Teacher Can?t Teach You About Writing Copy”

  1. Ray Edwards, Copywriter said:

    Bob, I just had an interesting discussion with a client about this very topic. She was worried about what “people will think” if the grammar on her site is less than perfect. My answer: “Would you rather that ‘people’ think your grammar splendid and not buy from you, or would you rather they think your grammar terrible and give you their money?” My client said that this made the issue clear, and we stopped talking about grammar.

  2. TonyD said:

    That’s a great story! I used to work with several guys who had studied Latin in school. It turns out (according to them) that the reason it’s “bad grammar” to have a dangling modifier is that in Latin such a construction is literally impossible. The rule was imposed by scholars who looked to Latin as the model.

  3. Jim Logan said:

    And. But. Because. We were all taught you never begin a sentence with any of those words. It’s not proper language. But that’s how most people speak.

    I make more grammatical errors than most people and am a life-long student on the proper use of words, tense, and punctuation. I am master of the fragmented sentence. Thanks to spell checking software, I’m able to mask further embarrassments.

    Yet, I’ve been told I can effectively communicate with my audience through writing. Do I write better than I think I do? Or is my audience as illiterate as I am :-)

  4. Gerold Braun said:

    If the grammar is perfect, poeple won’t recognize. Otherwise if the grammer is (playfully) wrong, it’s a hook to look twice and wonder/laugh/remember. From time to time copywriter come out with terrific, grammatically falsed headlines.

  5. Danny said:

    As far as I’m concerned, the whole purpose behind the rules of grammar is to facilitate clear communication. As long as you hold true to this and communicate clearly, don’t let the rules hold you back.

    After all, you’re looking for sales, not grades, right?

  6. M. Cloward said:

    Mr. Bly’s posting reminded me of the Apple Computer slogan from a few years ago: “Think Different.” Some complained that it should have read “Think Differently,” but the grammatically correct version isn’t nearly as memorable.

  7. Wendy Maynard said:

    When artists attend rudimentary classes, they learn to render objects, buildings, perspective, and figures accurately. Over time as their expertise grows, many artists choose to become increasingly abstract. Some intentionally distort their works to express a concept.

    Why should writers be any different? Once a writer understands the proper rules of grammar, punctuation, and so on, why not choose to manipulate the language in any way that works to get the point across?

    Besides, it sure wouldn’t be as much fun!

    Best, Wendy

  8. Laura said:

    This has been one of the most useful blog posts I’ve read in awhile. I’m a marketing coordinator for a hotel chain, so I spend a lot of time coordinating marketing projects for several hotel properties, and often deal with salespeople and staff at the hotels who don’t understand that copywriting to drive sales should not always follow all the rules your English teacher taught you. I understand this, but have always struggled to explain this in a satisfactory way to my hotels. I’m very grateful to have read this. Danny’s post couldn’t have put it any better.

  9. Pamela Kock said:

    When I was in high school, my awesome English teacher Mr. Geier gave us some advice. He said that sometimes you have to break the rules. But first, you must fully understand them. I’m not sure many in the class understood what he meant, but I did, and I’ve been taking them to heart ever since. Because if you don’t completely understand how to do it according to the rules, doing it otherwise will only be wrong. But if you do understand, breaking the rules can be an art form in itself.

  10. Bink said:

    I’m pondering a career in copywriting and was directed to your site. I love this story. Thanks for sharing it!

  11. Avi Fertig said:

    a client once reamed for poor grammar. “When I hire a professional writer,” he wrote in an email, “I expect him to be aware of basic grammar rules.” Feeling humbled, I wrote back asking about my mistake. He responded that sentences beginning with ‘and’ are clearly wrong. In my reply I invited the client to open that morning’s Wall Street Journal to see if other ads contained this mistake. Later that day he wrote an apology to me.

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