Is Grammar Important for Conversational Copy?

Yes.

And no.

If you spend any time online, you’ve probably seen your fair share of the misuse of your/you’re or there/they’re/their or its/it’s.  And you’ve probably seen people come out of the woodwork to correct the person making the mistake. Maybe you’ve even been that person.

grammar
A thankless job.

As a copywriter, those sorts of things do matter. Those words don’t mean the same thing, and it looks sloppy when the correct form isn’t being used.

But I’m about to say something maybe a little controversial:

Grammar is not always important.

At least not when it comes to conversational copy.

Why? Because communication is about meaning, not rules.

Let’s be clear, though. I’m not telling you that we can just slap a few half-assed sentences together and call it good, conventional language rules be damned. Conversational copy doesn’t mean unprofessional copy. You need to spellcheck. You need to consider your words carefully. You need to grammar check (even just a quick run-through with the free version of Grammarly will do wonders). If you don’t, you will lose credibility in the eyes of your readers because they’ll be able to tell that you couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to details (and who wants to do business with someone who isn’t careful?).

Yes, you need to make sure your sentences follow basic grammar rules. Don’t use “is” when you’re talking about a plural noun. Don’t write “Me and him” at the start of a sentence. Don’t you dare write “I seen a duck,” when you mean, “I saw a duck.”

But do you need to make sure you never, ever, EVER use a passive voice? No.

Do you need to avoid ending sentences with prepositions at all costs? No.

Do you need to avoid starting sentences with “And” or “But” because your fourth-grade teacher told you so? No. (Look up; I just did that a second ago.)

Do you need to get rid of all sentence fragments? No. (Sentence fragments are great sometimes. They emphasize. They highlight. They work…. See what I did there?)

Do you  need the Oxford comma? Not necessarily. (But be consistent regardless of your stance.)

How do I know which rules are cool to break?

It’s pretty simple.

Generally, if you can break a rule when speaking in real life while still sounding natural and intelligent (AND without losing your meaning), then it’s probably fine to break it in conversational copy. Like I said last week, conversational copy is writing that mimics natural speech.

“She’s the girl I go to yoga with” is technically improper grammar, but you’ve probably said it or something like it a million times. If you correct it to “She’s the girl with whom I go to yoga,” you’re lacing your voice with a kind of snobbery that only belongs on the hit show Fraiser. Your customers don’t want to feel like you’re talking down to them, so why not just write it the way you’d say it over coffee?

Even if you use a program like Grammarly to check your writing, don’t accept all the suggestions blindly. I’m using a grammar checker right now as I write this, and I have four glaring red lines that are screaming at me to change them. But I won’t because they’re written just the way I would say them if I were teaching this topic as a lecture.

One last caveat. 

I used to teach persuasive speech writing and speaking to college students. I graded using a rubric so that every student knew exactly what was expected of them, in roughly what order. They had a literal roadmap of the “rules” of creating and delivering a complete and effective speech. But following the rubric only really guaranteed a C on the speech, because it only covered the bare minimum work necessary. Speeches that followed the rubric to a T hit all the points needed, but were boring as hell to listen to because they lacked flair.

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Students who got A’s on speeches were the ones who understood the concepts on the rubric and then played with them. They broke some rules, but did so intentionally in a way that added to the speech’s effectiveness rather than subtracting from substance and meaning.

I’m writing this post under the assumption that you know basic grammar rules.

You have to know the rules before you can break them.

If you read this post and didn’t understand what I meant about ending with prepositions or passive voice (or God forbid, the difference between your/you’re), then it’s time to find your junior high English notes, wipe the dust off the cover of your composition notebook, and brush up.

Get to it.

-Lauren

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