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Some (grammar) rules were made to be broken

In the agency world, copywriting is a form of creative expression. Yet some haunting memories of your English teacher shoving grammar rules down your throat may bring your creativity to a grinding halt. How important is it to pay respect to some long-standing grammar rules that dare I say, no longer have a place in this modern world? In this article, I banish five grammar myths to help ease you into copywriting bliss.

1. There’s only one way to write the possessive form of a word ending in ‘s’

There are in fact two ways: add an apostrophe, or add an apostrophe + s. For example, you can write:

  • Chris’ book is on the table, or
  • Chris’s book is on the table

Both are correct. It’s a debatable style issue, so choose one and be consistent.

2. Never use contractions in writing

Many of us were taught that contractions (such as can’t, don’t, it’s and they’re) are for spoken English, not written. But if you want to connect with your audience, you need to speak human to them – and that means writing in a natural, conversational way. If you don’t use contractions, your writing will have a clunky, old-fashioned feel.

3. Never use the same word twice in a sentence

I fall victim to this one so often and rely on to get me through. Personally, I don’t like seeing the same word in close succession in any piece of prose. But if it is for high impact or a particular tone, screw it!

Doing anything and everything to avoid using the same word twice in a sentence can make your writing sound like a thesaurus. Variety for the sake of variety is confusing, so rather than lose your readers, feel free to use the same word twice in a sentence if you can’t find a better word.

4. Avoid using double negatives

Do two negatives make a positive or do they make the statement VERY negative? Double negatives can actually come in handy. They’re perfect for when you need to wiggle your way around a touchy subject, for example, “I wouldn’t say I don’t like your cooking.” Just don’t overdo it – you might have readers scratching their heads if you declare, “I didn’t want her to not like me.”

5. Data is a plural noun that always takes a plural verb

When I see, “Data were extracted” or “These data are used for intense analysis”, it’s pure torture. Like fingernails scratching a very big blackboard. While it’s true that data is plural (the singular in Latin is datum), it’s also true that Latin is a dead language – and English isn’t.

Many plural Latin and Greek nouns (such as agenda and opera, and probably media in a few years) have become singular nouns in modern English. So use your singular verb without regret and let the ancient Romans have their datum!

While “got milk?” is grammatically frowned upon, the successful campaign, which launched in 1993 has weathered the storm. Image:

Need some other helpful tips for writing content? If you’re non-native-English speaking, here is a list of words to watch out for. Also, find out why bad English copy is bad for business.

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Pha Khem

My career moves to date have taken me from my home town Melbourne, to London and finally to Copenhagen where I work as a copywriter and project manager for cylindr. I’ve worked in both the public and private sector, quite often capitalizing on my communication skills. My interests lie in public health, sustainability and corporate social responsibility. As a qualified dietitian, I enjoy working with food chemistry and human physiology yet can lend a hand with writing highly technical copy for a wide mix of industries.