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It's time to forget what your english teacher taught you...

Published date
07 May 2020

When you think about copywriting, it's hard to not look back to English classes at school – tutor Ron Finlay talks us through some of the controversial questions about business writing that often come up in his course…

Can you begin a sentence with “And” or “But”? Are you allowed to end a sentence with a preposition? In writing, should you ever use the word “get”?

If your answers to any or all of these are “no”, then it’s time to unlearn some of what you might have been taught at school.

Language evolves – something the students in my class (and the general population) often forget. Conventions that may have been right years ago no longer necessarily hold true today. So if you want to use written English to engage your readers, it’s important you keep up to date.

That’s not to say that all the “rules” are wrong – it’s just that they’re not exactly “rules” and there’s a time and a place for everything. The very fact that some people ask the question “are you allowed” suggests that they feel correct language is a bit of a cage, and you break out of it at your peril. Not so!

I encourage you, if you attend my class, to break free of those imaginary constraints.

For example, consider contractions – those handy shortened forms such as “you’ll” from the pair “you will” or “it’s” meaning “it is” or “it has”. Some of you may believe that it’s wrong to use these in formal language – but look, I’ve just done it, and I don’t think it seemed out of place, did it?

And dashes. Should you not use commas or semi-colons instead? My answer is no – and yes. As language has evolved to become more informal in many (but not all) settings, we’re tending to dispense with fiddly bits of punctuation, and commas are not as plentiful in prose as they used to be. Since dashes are easier to employ, writers often use them in preference. But there are occasions to choose them and occasions to lose them. For example, if you want to highlight a contrast and even introduce a dramatic pause, dashes are particularly useful. Look at the third sentence of this paragraph. But if you have a list in a formal report and you feel that bullet points would be out of place, semi-colons could be just the tool you need.

If, like many of my students, your role is in marketing or communications, where your mission is to make copy intelligible to your readers, I particularly urge you to push back against legalese. Terms and conditions are notorious, aren’t they? You might believe lawyers who tell you that “it’s got to be like that”, but I say no! You can convey legally binding terms in Plain English and it’s good practice to do so. Do not be intimidated!

Lest you think my course is all about unlearning, fear not: there will be learning too – about how to grab your readers’ attention, how to keep them engaged and how to get rhythm into your copy too.

So, if you want to get your writing into shape for the 21st century – whether it be in print or online – come and try out my Confident Copywriting course. But be prepared to unlearn much of what your English teacher once taught you.

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