Can I get away with it? 12 common grammatical errors your copywriter's probably making!January 29th, 2009 41 Comments
I is a copywriter. So my blog posts are all free of grammatical errors and semantic ambiguities, right? Nup.
I write much as I speak. So my style is conversational and my posts share some of the errors of speech. And that’s ok. For two reasons:
- My style is CLEARLY conversational. Readers see the signals immediately, so they don’t expect rigorous, prescriptive grammar. In fact, they kinda expect the opposite.
- Most of my technical errors are deliberate – perhaps even necessary. In a conversation, listeners would most likely notice if I DIDN’T make them.
And sometimes I use grammatical errors just to get attention. (We all like attention!)
But it’s not just an orgy of offenses. If you’re gonna break the rules, it helps to have a pretty good grasp of them in the first place. Then at least you’ll know you’re breaking them, and you’ll be able to make an educated guess about the likely impact.
Don’t worry, this post isn’t gonna be a boring discussion of the rules of grammar. I’ve simply picked out a few of the more common mistakes I see made, and plotted them on my ‘Can I Get Away With It?’ scale (patent pending ;-).
And now the nerdy explanation
If you didn’t get all you needed from the scientific diagram above, or you’re simply a word-nerd, here’s a bit of an explanation of each mistake.
- “who” v “whom” – You use “whom” when the person you’re talking about is the object of the sentence, not the subject. Most of the time, there’s an easy way to tell: if it’s got a preposition in front of it (e.g. “by”, “with”, “on”), then you use “whom”. If it doesn’t, you use “who”. If that doesn’t work – as in the example in my scale above – try this. The object is generally the person being acted upon, not the person doing the acting. In the example, “whom do you love”, you are doing the loving, and someone else is the object of your affection. They’re being acted upon. So you use “whom” to refer to them. But how often do you hear “whom” in conversation?! “Who” is good enough for most audiences.
- One word sentences – Technically, a sentence needs a subject and a verb. Huh! Rubbish! I say if it conveys your meaning, and you’d get away with it in conversation, use it.
- Split infinitives – An infinitive is a fancy-pants term for a construction like, “to go” or “to be”. Purists hate infinitives like these to be torn apart. So Star Trek’s “to boldly go” is out. And so is “to only be”. You get the picture.
- Sentences that end with a preposition – A preposition is a word that shows the relationship between two things (nouns). “On”, “in” and “with” are all prepositions. Purists don’t like sentences to finish with prepositions. I’m not quite sure why. They sound fine to me. I’m with Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of nonsense with which I will not up with put.”
- “different from” v “different to” – I grew up saying “different to”. But technically, it’s supposed to be “different from”. I don’t know the precise grammatical reason, but I know a rule of thumb to help you out if you get confused: remember that you’d say “oranges differ from lemons”; you wouldn’t say “oranges differ to lemons”. Mind you, many people say “different to”, so you’ll probably get away with it with most audiences. (In fact, “different from” still sounds a little stiff and formal to me. But that may be just because of what I grew up saying.)
- Treating a company as a plural, instead of a singular – A company or business is a single entity. You wouldn’t say “he are” or “it are”, so try not to use those constructions when talking about a company. However, sometimes it’s good to talk about a company as if it’s a group of people. It personalizes the company. (This is particularly true of the third example below.) Following is a list of examples of a company being treated as a plural:
- “XYZ Corp are a great company” (should be “is”);
- “XYZ Corp want you to visit their showroom” (should be “wants” and “its”); or
- “XYZ Corp is very experienced. They have been around for 10 years, and their customer service is great…” (should be “it has” and “its”).
- “who” v “that” – This is one of the most common mistakes I hear. E.g. “I spoke to a woman that said…” It should be “who”. You use “who” for people and “that” for animals or objects. As it’s very common, it’s something you can often get away with, but to me it really stands out.
- “you’re” v “your” – To shorten “you are”, use “you’re”. Always. Many people will notice if you get it wrong.
- “it’s” v “its” – Only use “it’s” if you’re shortening “it is”. You don’t use it to indicate ownership. (e.g. This is correct: “the dog chased its ball”.) Just another example of the inconsistency of the English language!
- “their” v “there” v “they’re” – Use as follows:
- “The boys rode their bikes.”
- “They rode over there.” (A good way of remembering: “here” and “there” look very similar.)
- “Now they’re going to ride back.” (Shortening of “they are”.)
That’s about all the grammar I can stomach for now. All I have left is to advise you to read the above in the context of your own audience. Writing and social media coach, Angie Haggstrom, says it best: “While every writer should aim for perfection, I honestly don’t think a misspelled word could destroy the entire piece. It depends on the situation, and the content itself.”
EDIT: You might also be interested in this infographic
I recently created an infographic showing when it’s OK to use certain contractions. It’s a handy guide, especially if contractions aren’t your strong suit.
Any other examples you’d like to cite, please comment.
Please comment below with your thoughts. I'm not so old a dog that I can't learn a few new tricks!