As a copywriting client, you probably don’t give two figs about grammar and punctuation. I don’t blame you. Because that’s the minimum you’d expect from your copywriter.
What you really want is someone to make your stuff sound irresistible.
What you might get, though, is a copywriter who can’t even write English. Don’t believe me? I just checked the first 20 freelance copywriters listed on Google. On their websites, I found:
• Misuse of sat and stood (this makes me soooo maaaad)
• ‘That’ used in place of ‘than’, as in ‘this is tougher that you think’
• Confusion of ‘then’ and ‘than’
• Dangling modifiers (more of this later)
• Bastard enumeration (ditto)
• Incorrect use of pronouns, such as ‘the woman that…’ (should be ‘who’)
And more. Much more.
I was never taught grammar at school. I taught myself. And, as a freelance copywriter, I’ve made it my business to know just about every rule in the book. So I know when I can apply those little rules rigidly and when I can be a bit flexible.
When I landed my final job in the real world, as an editor, my dad handed me a book called Troublesome Words by former Times business editor Bill Bryson.
It’s a sort of finishing school for copywriters. Here’s a bit of what Bill taught me.
Only. Needs to come before the word it modifies. Otherwise ‘The bus only ran on Sundays’ suggests it might have flown on other days.
That and which. You can’t interchange these words willy-nilly. Consider ‘The tree, which had no leaves, was a birch,’ and ‘The tree that had no leaves was a birch’. The ‘which’ clause is providing non-essential information and could be removed. In the second example, the leaflessness helps us distinguish the tree from others.
Bastard enumeration. This is when you write a series (a list) but get your ‘and’ wrong: ‘The group has interests in Germany, Australia, Japan and intends to expand into North America next year.’
Dangling modifiers. ‘Hopping through the woods, Joe spotted a frog’. It’s unlikely that Joe was hopping through the woods. A dangling modifier occurs when the first clause describes what the subject (the frog) is doing. The subject must then immediately follow the comma.
You see this in sales copy when you get those direct-mail letters that begin, ‘As a valued customer, I wanted to tell you about…’
Parallel construction. Like law enforcement for words. Parallel construction means describing things in the same way. For example, ‘What matters isn’t what you think, it’s your behaviour’ is wrong. ‘What matters isn’t what you think – it’s what you do,’ would be correct.
OK, so some of these are pretty hardcore, but knowing them helps your writing sing just that bit more sweetly.
And if you still don’t give a fig? That’s fine. Just so long as you know that I do.