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6 grammar rules you should break when writing online copy

by | Nov 8, 2021 | Copywriting Tips, WordPress for Entrepreneurs

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// When you write for an online audience, there are so many grammar rules you can break with impunity. In fact, not only can you break the rules, I argue that there are grammar rules you should break! In this post, we'll cover six of the most common.

When you write for an online audience, there are so many grammar rules you can break with impunity. In fact, I advocate that there are actually grammar rules you should break.

As a former English teacher, let me clue you in on a big secret:

Teachers put rigid grammar rules in place to get kids to understand the proper form while they’re first learning to write.

Once students master the basics, it becomes completely okay to deviate from the rules when it makes sense.

So, unless you’re an elementary school student first learning to write, here are six grammar rules you should break.

At a glance

Quick summary

  • Our goal in writing online copy is to get people to read it
  • Therefore, it’s perfectly acceptable to break grammar rules.
  • I argue that there are grammar rules you should break
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What’s the point of writing online copy?

First, let’s discuss why we write copy online:

To get people to actually read it.

You’d think that was obvious. But, based on the online copy I read, it usually seems like folks are targeting their college English professors, and only their college English professors.

When writing online copy, I advocate for the following guiding principles:

  1. To get people to read what you’re writing
  2. To be conversational
  3. To be on brand

Those rules are in order by priority, as well.

So, if it comes down to a choice between being 100% on brand, and getting someone to actually read what you’ve written, the latter is much more important.

(Looking at you, technical and legal folks!)

With the guiding principles from above in mind, let’s jump into the grammar rules you should break.

1 // Paragraphs should be 4-6 sentences

This is the most common error I see.

So many folks have giant, rambling blocks of text gunking up their web pages that absolutely nobody is reading.

Nobody wants to read something that looks like this:

Tousled waistcoat air plant ennui, humblebrag slow-carb pickled try-hard ugh green juice jianbing. Vinyl hexagon craft beer pinterest farm-to-table wolf. Artisan fashion axe keytar, pop-up offal man braid humblebrag austin. Semiotics raclette art party seitan paleo. You probably haven’t heard of them helvetica tumblr sartorial cardigan cray.

Pop-up try-hard hella distillery actually mumblecore asymmetrical heirloom williamsburg bespoke edison bulb. Hoodie single-origin coffee food truck craft beer, la croix organic sartorial. Artisan bushwick paleo tilde edison bulb street art slow-carb. Stumptown succulents banh mi salvia. Paleo kitsch woke, banh mi vape organic fixie ugh venmo. Jianbing celiac jean shorts waistcoat vinyl slow-carb cardigan humblebrag enamel pin heirloom offal.

(No, that’s not supposed to make any sense. It’s a version of Lorem Ipsum called Hipster Ipsum, and it’s my favorite.)

Please. For the love of all that’s good. Stop doing this!

When they’re reading online, people don’t read. They scan.

Giant blocks of text are difficult to get through, and so most folks skip them.

Updated grammar rule:

Paragraphs should be as short as possible. Max 3 sentences.

Also, one-sentence paragraphs are totally acceptable!

2 // Always use complete sentences

It’s not necessary to always write complete, subject/predicate sentences when you’re drafting online copy.

As long as your audience knows what the hell you’re talking about, you can use ‘incomplete’ sentences here and there. Especially for emphasis.

See what I did there?

Updated grammar rule:

Use mostly complete sentences. Occasional incomplete sentences are useful too!

3 // Don’t use contractions

Another see-what-I-did-there moment!

Depending on your brand/style, this is another grammar rule you should break almost all of the time.

Don’t. Can’t. Won’t. Aren’t. Shouldn’t’ve.

All of these contractions are legit when you’re writing online.

They’re more conversational and typically easier to read.

…well. Except maybe “shouldn’t’ve”.

I’d say that the only exception to this exception is if your brand is more serious in nature. If you’re writing for a technical or legal audience, and you want your tone to be more stodgy, then stick with the expanded words.

Otherwise, contractions are fair game!

Updated grammar rule:

Contractions are perfectly fine (as long as you don’t mess up your tone, brand, or style).

4 // Never use ‘they’ to refer to a single person

There’s no debate around this. The singular ‘they’ has been acceptable for a long time, and it’s here to stay now.

The binary ‘he/she’ is outdated and exclusive. All of its variants are too.

The singular ‘they’ is more inclusive, is easier to read, sounds less ridiculous and more conversational, and is widely accepted and used.

Plus, it’s got endorsements from major organizations like Merriam-Webster, Associated Press, APA, and MLA.

Updated grammar rule:

Never use binary pronouns to refer to unknown individuals (e.g., he/she; his/hers). Always use the singular ‘they’.

5 // Never end a sentence with a preposition

This rule doesn’t have as much attention paid to it as others. But, it’s one that’s fine to break when it makes sense.

My rule of thumb is to follow the guideline when it sounds right, and to break the guideline when it sounds ridiculous.

For example:

“She cooked her meal using which frying pan?” vs. “Which frying pan did she cook her meal with?”

I’d use the former. It sounds normal and follows the convention by not ending the sentence with ‘with’.

Another example:

“From where did you come?” vs. “Where did you come from?”

No brainer. The former sound ludicrous. Go with the latter.

Just to complicate things, the only caveat I’d add here is to avoid a redundant preposition.

“Where are you at?” is a pet peeve of mine. The ‘at’ is totally unnecessary. Just say, “Where are you?”

Updated grammar rule

Write conversationally. If a sentence sounds normal with a preposition at the end, it’s fine to write it that way!

6 // Never start a sentence with a conjunction

FANBOYS.

For. And. Nor. But. Or. Yet. So.

You were likely taught never to start a sentence with one of those.

I’m here to tell you: It’s totally okay.

This is another time where teachers enforced a ‘rule’ that was meant to prevent young students from making mistakes.

Since we’re not in elementary school any more, it’s okay to start sentences with conjunctions.

But, I’d say to avoid overdoing it.

(I only added ^ that sentence to provide an example of what I mean 😉).

Updated grammar rule:

It’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction. But, avoid overdoing it.

Keep reading

Some of these grammar rules you should break appear in my post on the high crimes of web design.

If you want to spot and avoid web design errors, it’s worth taking a look:

https://courageandgrow.com/7-web-design-mistakes/

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Others? Questions?

Any thoughts or questions? Anything with which you disagree? Any others grammar rules you should break that I missed?

Leave a comment below and let me know!

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