I won second prize in a really difficult grammar contest against a room full of PR agency owners and CEOs. I talk about that as frequently as possible.
I almost didn’t get married because in our very first argument in the first month we were dating, I interrupted Patrick to tell him “also too” is redundant. He became so infuriated that he almost walked out the door never to be seen again.
So when the client I’m working with suggested a tagline that uses the word “less” when it should be “fewer,” I got ready to put up a fight. Then they asked me whether it’s really important to be grammatically proper. Look at Apple and “Think Different.” Look at all the signs in the grocery store express lines that state, “15 items or less.”
I stopped to think about it and thought I’m going to be twitchy for months if we use this. How can I stand by it?
So I talked to colleagues and friends I respect, and I turned to Facebook. (If it’s spoken on Facebook, it must be truth.) I received a mixed bag of feedback, but some of the sticklers—the ones just like me—responded, “Break the rules if it makes sense.”
And she flip-flops
I love language. So I’m all for preserving it and abiding by the rules. However, I also like to start sentences with “and,” although I draw the line at ending a sentence with a preposition.
We bemoan losing our language to texting and social media with hashtags and acronyms because we’re communicating with different limitations now—limited characters and a faster pace.
There’s a difference between losing our language and evolving it. I don’t know where that line exists. Adding LOL to the dictionary might be on the wrong side of the tracks. Taking the hyphen out of email is on the right side. But who gets to decide?
Then there is the idea of just plain breaking the rules because you’re more concerned with moving product than making us English geeks feel happy. Why not bend a rule if the flow is much better?
Rules are meant to be broken
What I love about language and writing is the flow—putting words together and the sound and stories they elicit. There is a rhythm, and that’s why it’s always important to read your writing out loud.
Creating a positioning statement might be one of the greater language challenges. You have to make an emotional connection with the audience in a split second. When you have four to six words to tell the story of your service or product, grammar be damned—let’s get the word across at all costs.
Ken Mueller pointed out Pennsylvania’s slogan, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” I had to stop and read it a second time—it didn’t sound wrong—until I realized the error. Then I thought, “Ow!” but it’s speaking the language of the consumer and it gets the point across. How about, “Got Milk?”
Our language is evolving because we use it differently, and it must therefore adapt. Just as religion, antiquated laws, and Blockbuster Video should be adapted, our language must be modified to serve our current needs and challenges.
So we write in shorter sentences and paragraphs. We use a more informal, conversational lexicon. Contractions become the norm. We start paragraphs with the word “so.”
We have to get a message across in fewer words to an easily distracted, very rushed audience who probably won’t even notice we said “less” rather than “fewer” and certainly won’t boycott the product over it. Although it will give some the pleasure to point out our error, in which case we can be happy we provided them that experience.
My twitch will subside soon, and I tossed my vote in the hat for “less.” In this sense, it just has better flow and rhythm.
Lisa Gerber is a digital marketing strategist, owner and founder of Big Leap Creative. A version of this article first appeared on her blog.