Writing isn't an exact science. But for something that is so fluid and flexible, there are countless grammar rules dictating what you can and cannot do to write correctly.
The beauty of writing is that nothing is set in stone. There's no one, true way to write anything—every rule is fair game. But there's one big caveat: you have to know a rule before you can break it. When you knowingly break the rules, it's style. Breaking rules you don't know is ignorance.
Some rules shouldn't be broken, such as writing with inconsistent tenses, dangling participles, poor subject-noun agreement, or misspellings. But other rules are more flexible. In fact, most of them aren't really official rules at all—they're holdovers from grade school or high school English classes. They're stopgaps, generalizations, or overreactions.
Whether you’re writing product descriptions, email subject lines, or PPC ad copy, this post will help you understand where some of these grammar rules came from—and why (and how) you can break them.
“Ground Rules” for Breaking Grammar Rules
- Consider the context. Where is this being published or read? Professional publications and websites may require a more formal tone than an email or a blog.
- Think about the audience. If you're writing a letter to investors or to a potential employer, you should probably err on the side of formality. Writing for your friends or followers on Facebook? Not so much.
- Stay true to your voice. If your brand or market is more personal and friendly, you have a lot more flexibility than someone writing for a highly regulated industry or corporate entity.
1. Use "One" Instead of "You"
Which of these sentences sounds better?
- If one would like, one may return items within one week of one's purchase.
- You can return items within one week of purchase.
In formal writing, it may be necessary to use "one" instead of "you." But you're probably not doing "formal writing"—you're most likely writing web content, sales copy, letters, or emails. Some of these may be formal, but they're not as formal as literary essays or research papers.
In school, this rule most often helps students avoid writing in the second person (ex. "When you read this book, you can see what the author is trying to say."). Unfortunately, replacing “you” with "one" doesn't solve the core problem—it simply replaces the result (a paper filled with "you's") with a different result (a paper filled with "one's").
This becomes even more problematic now, when many of us actually do need to write in the second person. In fact, if you are giving instructions or suggestions, you should use the second person. And if you’re writing about how much you will enjoy a new product, you don't want to talk about "one"—you want to talk about "you."
2. Avoid Using "I"
This is another remnant from grade school days. Originally, banning the first person in formal essays was an attempt to reduce "I think" or "I believe" statements in favor of fact-based arguments. But again, you're not writing essays. Most likely, you're an independent business owner telling your customers what you think. By all means, let them know it's you.
In fact, it is highly recommended to use this personal tone over the common practice of referring to your company in the third person. Instead of saying "The Amazing Online Store is committed to great customer service," say "We believe everyone deserves great customer service." If you're constantly referring to yourself in the third person, it's harder to trust what you say.
3. Don’t Use Contractions
This is a legitimate rule for formal and professional writing because contractions are more casual and assume a certain level of informality. But that's exactly what sales and marketing writing should sound like—informal and inviting.
In most cases, your written voice in marketing materials should sound very similar to the way you talk—and very few people talk without using contractions. The more your writing sounds like you're actually speaking to the reader, the more likely they are to feel comfortable with what you say.
As an added bonus, if you use contractions regularly, readers will be more likely to notice when you don't. So when you really want to make sure they absolutely do not forget what you're about to say, write it out.
4. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
This rule is still in debate among many grammar experts and writing instructors, but in general it is no longer given much credence. In fact, following this rule without question can lead to some awkward writing. Let's look at a couple of phrases that may come up in an ecommerce setting:
- "What are you looking for?"
- "This is the product I'm interested in."
Following the rule, that exchange should sound like this:
- "For what are you looking?"
- "This is the product in which I'm interested."
Nobody actually talks that way, so you shouldn’t feel the need to write like that. However your final copy comes together, make sure it would sound natural if being read or spoken out loud.
5. You Can't Start a Sentence with a Conjunction
This is another example of a rule that many teachers implement to solve a different problem. Conjunctions (and, but, or) are typically used to join two parts of a sentence. When students begin a sentence with a conjunction, they're more likely to end up writing an incomplete sentence or fragment (like "And goes to the store."). Barring students from starting a sentence with a conjunction at all helps them eliminate this common mistake.
But starting a complete sentence with a conjunction can help draw attention to the statement and imply an important transition. As long as you are using conjunctions to begin a sentence in the right context, you can get away with breaking this rule as often as you need to.
6. Don't Use Slang
This is definitely a rule to use or ignore at your discretion. You probably don't want to promote your "awesome medical devices," but that neon unicorn T-shirt? "Totally rad."
It's completely acceptable to use slang, casual terminology, and everyday language in your writing, but don't overdo it. Think about the way your customers would actually speak about (or search Google for) your products or your store, and write to their style.
As we mentioned at the beginning, writing isn't an exact science. Some of these grammar rules can and should apply to your writing, but others may be less important—or downright wrong—for your industry. Overall, write for your audience and don’t be afraid to break the rules now that you know them.
Note: If you’re still concerned about writing in a professional manner, tools like Grammarly, Hemingway, and Readability are useful for checking your work and making sure it sounds reasonable.