Four Classic Copywriting Mistakes (that aren’t mistakes at all)
Everyone likes pointing out copywriting mistakes – as a redeemed pedant, I know this all too well – but nobody likes to explain why they’re mistakes.
This is the problem with received wisdom. It starts as a specific piece of well-intentioned guidance, but over years and decades, it eventually becomes an article of intractable faith. When it comes to grammar, it’s especially galling. The rules of writing are a fiction we have collectively agreed on. This is not to say that they aren’t useful or helpful sometimes, and when they can improve a sentence’s flow or clarify meaning they’re worth paying attention to. But they’re suggestions, rather than prescriptions.
As Oliver Kamm says, there is a difference between a disputed usage and an error – and sometimes, usage is disputed for reasons that are obsolete, spurious, or downright stupid.
In this spirit, here are four examples of copywriting mistakes that are actually perfectly fine.
1. To casually split your infinitives
The split infinitive – where a ‘to’ is separated from a verb because another word has been inserted between them – is a bugbear for many self-appointed grammar Nazis. The most famous and most cliched example comes from Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.’
Split infinitives should therefore be scrupulously avoided by Etonian first years; everyone else is probably safe.
2. Ending sentences with prepositions shouldn’t be put up with
This one dates back to the 18th century, but so do several smallpox epidemics. A preposition is a connecting word such as ‘for’, ‘to’, or ‘with’. “What was it all for?” would be an example. “Who am I sending this to?” also works. It’s bad because, well, custom and tradition dictates that it is.
This is yet another example of historical grammarians attempting to retrofit English to the rules of Latin – a related language, but one that is, again, dissimilar in many important ways. Winston Churchill, upon being criticised for ending a sentence with a preposition, offered a fitting rebuke: “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” When this is cited among your copywriting mistakes, I hope you do the same.
3. When the passive voice is used
Here’s an actual, iron-clad rule of grammar: people who inveigh against the passive voice have no idea what the passive voice actually is. When you speak in the passive voice, the noun that would usually be the object of an active phrase or sentence is instead the subject. “The scaffold was erected by John” would be an example – its inverse being “John erected the scaffold.”
The chief argument against the passive voice is that the active voice is apparently better: it’s more direct, forceful, and aggressive, and it doesn’t obscure responsibility. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style promotes this belief, and a more recent proponent is education-cum-justice-cum-DEFRA minister Michael Gove.
But sometimes you don’t need to be direct, forceful, or aggressive. Sometimes things will occur and the force responsible will remain largely unknown, or there will be multiple forces at work: “The other day I was hit, bit, and thrown in a pit” works much more effectively as a passive sentence than an active sentence. Sometimes, you’re simply telling a story about an object rather than a person, i.e. “The guitar was passed down from one generation to another.”
This isn’t to say that passive is better or that it can’t be done badly – simply that a blanket rule to avoid it at all costs is unnecessarily strict.
4. And never start sentences with conjunctions
This one is ridiculous and has no historical or grammatical foundation. I am reluctant to dignify it with an entry. If everyone blindly followed this rule in the 20th century, we’d have lost a lot of really good pop culture. “And She Was” by Talking Heads. The last sentence of The Great Gatsby. Kipling’s If.
But use your own judgment.
In fact, that’s rather the entire point. Grammatical prescriptivism is well-meaning, but ultimately flawed: language evolves, so ‘rules’ should evolve with it. Time you spend worrying about conjunctions and participles is time that’s better devoted to this one simple question: “Is there anything I could do to make my meaning more clear or my writing more interesting?”
Because in the end, there are only two copywriting mistakes: the first is to confuse your reader; the second is to bore them.