Two lightsaber pencils

Like it or not, the English language has rules. It needs them, because communication would be difficult — if not impossible — if we didn’t agree on consistent ways to speak, write and read. One of the great things about being a marketing writer is that sometimes I get to break those rules. As with all transgressions against authority, however, I must know two things:

  1. What the rules are
  2. How to break the rules without confusing readers

Where the Rules Come From

Elementary school teachers get a bad rap. Among their many unenviable tasks is the job of transforming illiterate children into adolescents who can read and write well. Although we begin picking up language skills from birth, the critical phase of our reading training typically happens between 5 years old through age 9 or 10. The age at which we begin writing varies a bit depending on which school we attend; but it typically starts in kindergarten or first grade.

At the stage of our lives when this training begins, most of us are still too young to realize that we’re learning more than just our A-B-Cs; we’re being taught essential survival skills. But how you feel about writing in general is likely to have been shaped by the skills of your teachers, both early on and throughout your education. A single intense experience — good or bad — can impact your development as a writer for years (or even a lifetime). But whether you still struggle with spelling or consider yourself a modern Shakespeare, you’ve probably graduated with some idea that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” way to write.

With all due respect to elementary school teachers, there’s some truth in this. The rules we’re taught early in life provide a critical foundation for communicating with the rest of humanity, or at least those who speak the same language. But it’s also important to understand that they’re essentially the lowest common denominator.

There’s More Than One Set of Rules

Language is a slippery thing. What we were taught in school was a standardized, formal version of English agreed upon (i.e., bitterly fought over) by academics. However “correct” it may be considered, it probably doesn’t reflect how you’d talk to a good friend while hanging out in a coffeehouse — or the way you need to talk to your customers.

For one thing, people come from different cultural backgrounds. Where your parents were born, what they did for a living while you were growing up, the era when you were a teenager, the place you went to school, and the faith or life stance of your family (whether you accepted or rejected it) have all probably influenced the ways you speak, write and even think today.

For example, when my father didn’t catch something in a conversation, he would say, “Please?” This meant: “Would you please repeat that?”, but it was also a tipoff to whom he was speaking that his family came from Germany. Although he never learned to speak German, he was essentially saying, “Bitte?” the same way his ancestors did.

This is just one of the ways language splinters and takes on variations. It can also be impacted by slang (“ain’t” is in the dictionary now, thank you very much1), the jargon of your profession (“Get down here, stat!”), words that get shortened (delish), mash-ups (chatbot), imports from other languages (déjà vu), brand names that become common words (Band-Aid), popular culture (GOAT), and more.

What all this diversity means to a marketing writer is that it’s not enough to know “the rules”. As a writer, I need to know which set of “rules” my target audience is playing by. If the way they use language breaks the formal rules I learned in school, my copy needs to deviate in the same way.

The Rules of Writing Are Always Changing

As useful as consistency may be for understanding, language must evolve and change when it encounters things it doesn’t have a way to describe. New inventions and ideas are among the most common catalysts, both directly (smartphone) and indirectly (selfie).

When language changes, the rules sometimes change too. For example, until a few years ago, the word “Internet” was considered a proper noun, so it was always capitalized in print. Then in 2016, several influential organizations, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, decided that it was such an integral part of human life that it should be treated as a generic term. That’s why many writers no longer capitalize “internet” (unless it’s the first word of a sentence).

Along the same line, I recently had an entirely serious discussion with our copy editor about how to handle the word “LiDAR”. As the technologies that enable self-driving cars continue to appear in news coverage, it’s possible that “LiDAR” is morphing from an acronym for “light detection and ranging” known primarily to engineers into a common word that a growing number of people recognize, much as the word “LASER” once did. We ultimately agreed that it isn’t quite there yet, but we’re keeping our eyes on LiDAR just in case.

“I Hope You Know What You’re Doing”

Although great writers often break the rules, they don’t just do it for kicks. Look closely when it’s done right and you’ll always find the reason.

Consider (SPOILER ALERT: the late) Ben Kenobi from the Star Wars saga. He may have been a rebel against an evil galactic empire, but he was a rule-follower when it came to language. If you went to him asking for Jedi training, he might have told you: “You must learn the ways of the Force.”

On the other hand, if you crashed your X-wing next to Master Yoda’s hut and made the same request, he’d probably say: “Learn the ways of the Force, you must.” This is intentional rule-breaking in action. Simply by scrambling his sentence structure, the screenwriting team is conveying the unspoken message that Yoda is an alien who may not use Galactic Basic as his native language — all while imparting subtle touches of humor and mystery.

Action Items for Aspiring Rule-Breakers

  • For a general guide to the rules and best practices of writing, you can’t beat The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. First published in 1920 with updates and additions in 1959, it’s still one of the most influential books written about the English language. Tech-heads, pay close attention to Rule 17.
  • If you think books about grammar are dull (i.e., you have a pulse), I heartily recommend The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. It’s clever, interesting, irreverent, full of dark gothic humor and not appropriate for children. You might even come away remembering what a gerund is.2 
  • And finally, if you enjoy writing, thank a teacher. They don’t get much positive feedback. (Ann Hart, if you’re still out there, I remain eternally grateful.)

1 When I was in elementary school, teachers would chide us for saying “ain’t” by chanting: “Ain’t ain’t a word cuz ain’t ain’t in the dictionary. Ain’t that a shame?” Alas for them, this ain’t the case anymore — though “ain’t” is still scolded in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language with the designation “nonstandard”. I continue to use it colloquially and ain’t gonna feel guilty about it.

2 I was once teased by my college faculty advisor because I couldn’t remember what a gerund was. Most days I still can’t, but when I do, it’s thanks to this book.