If Content Is King, Grammar Is Queen

Growing up in a household with highly disciplined parents, my grammar was always being corrected. Whether it was ending a sentence with a preposition, misplacing a modifier or splitting an infinitive, any conversation could be stopped, at any moment, to make sure I knew the right way to restate my thought (per the English grammar guidelines found in the little book Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”).

Yes—dinnertime conversation was often painful.

The lowlight was when my parents told me that my most recent letter home from college was fraught with grammatical errors, and they had seriously considered returning it to me, complete with red pencil corrections. Needless to say, my correspondence home dwindled.

Now that the marketing world has turned its sights to “content” as a key brand engagement device, I’m hopeful that the grammar police are reinforcing their troops for a ride along. Because from where I sit, brands could use a little disciplinary action. (Yep, just gave myself a smack for starting a sentence with the word “because.” Ouch.)

Over the years, I’ve certainly visited thousands of websites, downloaded hundreds of whitepapers and case studies, and, like you, I’ve received lots and lots of emails including sales tips and e-newsletters. I’m still amazed at the lack of grammar skill. Forget the typos—they’re just inexcusable—I mean the basics like “too” instead of “to,” or “between Joe and I” instead of “between Joe and me,” or a simple sentence like this: “If you would like to discuss Social Media with regards to your business further, please feel free to contact me.” Huh?

If you read my blog, you’ll know that I love commas. I think they help the reader pause, consider the point being made, and then continue to absorb the next point. It appears that idea is lost on many writers … or worse, the comma is misplaced. Consider the famous book title “Eats shoots and leaves” versus “Eats, shoots and leaves” or even “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” Personally I like serial commas, but it seems many brands have pushed them aside as part of their brand guidelines and chaos has erupted over the meaning of a sentence. [Editor’s note: Target Marketing adheres to AP Style, as do most publications, and the AP does not endorse serial commas. We apologize for any misunderstanding this may cause about whether to leave your bullets or dinner.]

A blog that challenges B-to-B marketers to learn, share, question, and focus on getting it right—the first time.

Carolyn Goodman is President/Creative Director of Goodman Marketing Partners. An award-winning creative director, writer and in-demand speaker, Carolyn has spent her 30-year career helping both B-to-B and B-to-C clients cut through business challenges in order to deliver strategically sound, creatively brilliant marketing solutions that deliver on program objectives. To keep her mind sharp, Carolyn can be found most evenings in the boxing ring, practicing various combinations.

You can find her at the Goodman Marketing website, on LinkedIn, or on Twitter @CarolynGoodman.

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Comments
  • MHart

    You’ve confused mediocre writing with grammatical errors.

    Misplaced modifiers and misused pronouns are incorrect. But neither a split infinitive nor ending a sentence in a preposition should be considered a grammatical error. Are they less than desirable? Yes. Should writers try to avoid them, if possible? Yes.

    But they are no more "errors" than long, unnecessarily complex sentences are.

  • Carolyn Goodman

    A cautionary note to Content creators everywhere.

  • Carol Worthington-Levy

    Great post. I just love Bulletproof’s campaigns with postcards that show misspellings that are very typical and often embarrassing.

    My parents and my mother’s mother constantly corrected us, and now I find myself appalled at what I read, and even worse, at the complete breakdown of intelligent spoken language on TV. On a comedy show it’s one thing, but what I see and hear on national TV news shows is ignorance. People on news shows that have graduated from educational institutions like Stanford are speaking like backstreet brawlers.

    Sometimes writers and folks in the media try to use colloquial phrases and slang, but many constantly screw it up. If I hear one more person say that we need to ‘hone in on’ some target, i will commit murder — you hone a blade to make it sharp, and you home in on a target. ughhhhh!! And mixed metaphors! Gaaaa! Ah, but that’s just the tip of the straw that broke the camels back. (LOL)

    Perhaps some of these apparent errors are an attempt to make us feel that the writer is "like us". If anything, it makes me realize how they are NOT like me.

    Language doesn’t have to be stuffy to be correct, and that’s the common implication — that those of us who care about grammar are somehow stuffy old biddies from the last century.

    Kids in school are not corrected by teachers because many teachers don’t use grammar correctly because they want the kids to relate to them. Or sometimes, i swear, they really don’t know what’s correct. Our own President was criticized for not speaking more casually and using more colloquial English, as his predecessor, "The Decider" did. It’s an embarrassment that many people who learned English as a second language, overseas, speak more eloquently than we do.

    English is a constantly evolving language, and it’s refreshing to hear new phrases and words as they enter our vocabularies. But some of what we hear and read is just plain wrong.

    It makes me very very sad for anyone who wants their kids to speak with any degree of sophistication or refinement.

    P.S. : Carolyn, your use of commas is a great way to clarify the intention of your writing. According to direct marketing guru Dr. Siegfried Vogele, if a comma is placed that could be left out, it can reduce the speed with which someone reads your message and potentially reduce response. But the alternative — making something so free of commas that it’s difficult to understand — is worse, in my humble opinion. Up the commas! (within reason),

    Cheers!

  • Peter J. Francis

    I’m tempted to say I eat "cereal commas" for breakfast, but someone might misunderstand the pun. Undoubtedly there are "rules" and then there are "rules". Grammarians do not agree on all rules and there are many grammatical questions that cannot be definitively answered. However, this does not mean anything goes. Yes, we write formally or informally depending on an audience. There are "rules" such as ending a sentence with a preposition, or splitting an infinitive that most knowledgeable writers understand are outdated and pedantic. And no one is perfect; so when you take the risk of writing about grammar no doubt someone will find fault with your writing. Nonetheless, the point of writing is communication, and adhering to standards facilitates communication. When copy contains obvious errors it detracts from its effectiveness. I was recently perusing ads for a new vehicle and came across an ad referring to a car’s "breaks". Would I buy a vehicle from a salesperson who can’t even spell one of its most vital components? Not a chance. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and bad grammar is like walking into a sales meeting with a big stain on your tie.

  • Adsla Teng

    I expect a lot of likes from my writer friends. 😉

  • copybreaker

    Writing effective copy has nothing to do perfect grammar. My sales letters get sent back to me from the grammar police that read my copy whether it be direct mail, web, etc. I don’t care, nor do I change anything in the future. If anything it shows me that my copy is successful if I have people reading it all the way through which leads to sales.

    Plus, as already mentioned, many of the grammar rules are antiquated. The English language is alive and it changes.

    I feel sorry for anyone who had parents that leaned on them with so much force about grammar. From the article and posts it shows that the children are not happy with that part of their parents’ parenting skills however in the next sentence they go nuts when they see others make what they believe to be grammar errors. Stop the cycle people and you’ll be that much happier.

  • Sherry Lamoreaux

    I love this spirited discussion. People care! Did you know that the Oxford (aka serial) comma has a Facebook page?http://bit.ly/11Xtykt

    The page also has some funny examples of wordage where the serial comma does make a difference: “Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”. And this, from The Times of London, November 1998. "Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector." (I know, I began a sentence with an "and". Blame it on my advertising past.)

  • freedomgap

    That’s interesting. I just read an article that said ‘get rid of all the commas’… that we Americans overuse them.

  • sawyerspeaks

    Well said, Carolyn. Most of the articles I see encouraging businesses to become instant content kings make no mention of the need for a professional writer or editor. The task is generally handed off to a junior marketer who fires exclamation points from some sort of automatic weapon. Come to think of it, those of us who’ve been publishing professionally in the corporate world for a few decades should really be getting valuable about now!

    I’m expecting to see "how you to can use the cereal comma," in a corporate style guide any day now. – Jeff Sawyer, http://www.sawyerspeaks.wordpress.com

  • Howard

    Hi Carolyn:

    Excellent commentary. Surprisingly, many B2B journalists, who allegedly should know better, have the same problems.

    Equally vexing, a common snafu I’ve found during several e-news studies is brevity-deficient copy. In my own workshops, I suggest that participants become acquainted with Fog Index principles. Specifically, 40 percent of the 1584 articles reviewed to date were burdened by parades of run-on sentences.

    In many cases, these articles are rewrites of foggy announcements submitted by PR firms, government and association sources. Presumably, your clients are not among those B2B marketers who treat brevity as a foreign language.

    Regards,

    Howard Rauch, President
    Editorial Solutions, Inc.

  • Cynthia Freeney

    Hi Carolyn.
    Are you familiar with Grammarly? Is it a good investment? Would you recommend it ?

  • sickofit

    One of the serious problems with this article, and why I cannot take it seriously, is demonstrated in the editor’s note. Grammar and style rules are never truly "agreed upon," and they routinely change. In fact, they are changing faster with each new year. And–oops, did I break a cardinal rule right there, shame on me–many, even most, people are wedded to inaccurate or downright erroneous grammar and style rules. Check out the highly touted Grammar Girl on the rule quoted in the first paragraph of this article about ending sentences with prepositions. The bottom line for me is this: You need to write to your audience and you’re never going to be 100% correct. There’s always a know-it-all troll–much like this author and her parents I bet–who, right or wrong, is going to grouse and complain. I find this particularly apparent when working with older writers and readers still wearing their 19th-century-grammar glasses. What can you do? I would love to tell them to go jump in their nearest lake, but we a just so nice in this biz, aren’t we? (OMG! Did he just use a colloquialism?! Straight to hell with him!) The truth is that it’s the grammar trolls who end up looking stupid and petty in the end. (Guess what trolls? Normal people are laughing at you.) And they are too prideful, arrogant, and insecure to come to terms with it; small people grasping at brittle straws of power. Just smile and nod and get on with the business of actually doing something. Feel free to get out your red pens and edit away. I won’t be wasting my time coming back for a review.

  • Jim Newman, CEM, LEED AP, OPMP, BEAP, FESD

    Oh my gosh, you are so right on, Carolyn.

    Today we’re finding that even copy editors allow unbelievable errors to get through. Copy editors??!? What is this workd coming to?

    Yesterday we listened to someone who is supposed to be an expert on social media and blogging who specifically said to forget the grammar,and even the spelling, it’s the content that counts.

    And it’s only going to get worseas the Twitter/text generation grows up (sorry about starting the sentence with an "and" but it seemed so apropos).
    By the way, I loved the editors comment about "Eats Shoots and Leaves".

  • Martin

    Hi Carolyn
    I agree with you. Unfortunately, at school English lessons, enforcing correct grammar may be regarded as limiting a free spirit and originality. I think that sloppy grammar shows sloppy thinking.
    (I hope that all my commas are in the correct place).
    Regards
    Martin

  • John Buglino

    Great article! I am going to recommend it to my team.

  • Laurel Reynolds

    Really great topic. I think a lot of us need a refresher course in English and grammar! I noticed the link to grammargirl.com is dead. You might want to check it. Let me know, because I’d like to post this on my content/design company’s (?) facebook page… oh and feel free to correct my grammar!


    Laurel Reynolds

  • C. Makepeace

    We adhere to the AP here, too, but we deviate in a few things, such as using serial comma. I don’t have a problem with using “because” to begin a sentence. When I read it in your paragraph, I understood that you were writing conversationally. You write the way you talk. To me it’s more important to be understood than to be strictly grammatically correct. Sorry, but I would call the "grammar tool" in MS Word anything but nifty. I despise it almost as much as I hate autocorrect on my iPhone. It has wanted to correct sentences that I wrote a specific way for a certain reason. No thanks, grammar tool. I go to grammarphobia.com to have many of my grammar questions answered.

  • Steve

    I think you gave the wrong url for Grammar Girl — should be http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/?

  • Jonathan Marx

    We must have been separated at birth Carolyn. I think we had the same parents. I couldn’t sit down at the dinner table until I got my Bachelor’s Degree. You too? I’ve been corrected on grammar to this day. I thank them both for such great training. Go Grammar!!

  • Patrick White

    Regarding your first sentence, isn’t ‘highly disciplined’ a compound adjective (‘highly-disciplined parents’)?

    As well, a copy editor might cringe at the use of the passive voice (my grammar was always being corrected) and instead suggest:

    ‘I grew up in a household of highly-disciplined parents who always corrected my grammar.’

    Said with love.

  • greater good

    Good grammar matters because it’s the foundation of communication. Whether spoken or written, it provides the structure for the correct dissemination and interpretation of thought. Why are we no longer regarded as the most highly educated nation?

  • greatgrammar

    You might want to check the grammar in your article about grammar…your first sentence has a GLARING grammatical error. Ouch.

  • L-W

    "Growing up in a household with highly disciplined parents, my grammar was always being corrected."

    Wow, your grammar grew up in a household with highly disciplined parents? Neat.

  • Beyond

    I am incomplete agreement. Or, perhaps your missing the point. And speaking of points. Stops. Or periods. With. Period.

  • Marie McRae, ALM

    We’re marketers, not linguistic scholars, right? Grammar and punctuation rules are more about respecting your audience and good writing manners than stylistic dogma. Clean, correctly spelled and consistently punctuated copy is the equivalent of holding the door open for the next person or saying "please" and "thank you." You wish more people did it more often to make the world a much nicer place.

  • Copywriter

    You must have missed the dinner where your parents discussed dangling modifiers, since your first sentence has one. Might want a proofreader to look at your next blog.

  • Michael Webster

    Carolyn;

    I am interested in your reaction what Tom Sant, Language of Success, argues for:

    "Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the worst mistakes in business communication have nothing to do with grammar or spelling or sentence complexity.

    Instead, [mistakes] stem from using the wrong structural pattern, one that is not capable of achieving our purpose."

    http://www.franchise-info.ca/monetizing/2012/11/how-to-write-better—learn-to.html#.URHXJ1pdcbQ