Hey, you can't say that!

Copywriters are expected to ensure that their copy is grammatically correct, and fair enough too. That’s what they’re paid to do – produce well-written copy. But surely the key thing is to ensure that the meaning of what’s written is clear, and preferably memorable too? Language evolves and grammatical structures change, so the notion of what is ‘correct’ is a fluid one anyway.

The archaic rule of the split infinitive is a case in point: thou shalt not split thine infinitives. Many people don’t even know what an infinitive is, these days, let alone how they should (or shouldn’t) split it! So if you’re among the many that don’t know your infinitives, here’s a run-down:

To go is an infinitive (the two-word form of a verb).
To boldly go is a split infinitive (inserting an adverb between the two words of the infinitive).

 Star Trek To boldly go

When the phrase was famously coined in Star Trek, to boldly go where no man has gone before, it knowingly broke the rule that you shouldn’t split infinitives. Did it interfere with Star Trek’s success? Not a bit. It was instantly understandable and enduringly memorable. It was first-rate copy.

In a recently published study, Lancaster University analysed millions of words of informal conversation recorded between 2012 and 2016 and found that people regularly split their infinitives. Their recommendation was that criticising this practice as bad grammar should cease because the way English is used has moved on.

Quite right too. If anything, the split infinitive ‘rule’ was always on shaky ground because it was originally proposed by academics in the late nineteenth century, and was more part of a Victorian desire to impose some discipline into English than a reflection of how it was actually used.

In any case, there is no one form of English. People might refer to the ‘Queen’s English’ as though there is an absolutely correct way of speaking and writing it, but people put words together in different ways according to where they live and which social circles they move in – and still manage to be perfectly intelligible.

Good copy generally is grammatically correct, but often unconsciously: the words used and the order they are used in will just feel like the best way of putting a message across. After all, ‘grammar’ is just an analysis of language that gives it a structure that can be taught formally. Before we even learn that it exists, we have picked up the basics as we go along – toddlers forming their first tentative sentences aren’t generally thinking along the lines of “Right, I’ve got my subject and an object – now which verb should I link them with…?”!

Obviously, good copy can be spoilt by bad grammar, but that’s usually because people will find it difficult to read, not because they have identified a specific flaw in its grammatical construction. And sometimes, supposedly bad grammar – like starting a sentence with a conjunction (as I have just done) – will help a piece flow much better than by rigidly adhering to supposed rules. Indeed, some copy deliberately flouts grammar to be more memorable. So let’s be prepared, as Apple were so successfully if ungrammatically in the 1990s, to ‘Think different’!

The acid test of good copy is that it engages and persuades the reader. Good grammar simply contributes by ensuring that the reader’s understanding is not stumbled along the way.

 

Return to blog