It’s a subject that divides people. I’ve seen full on arguments flare up in writers’ forums about the correct use of capital letters, punctuation and paragraph structure.
But the fact is, writing a webpage, a Facebook post, or a blog article is not the same as writing a book or a school essay.
While we need to stick to correct spelling and punctuation so we don’t confuse the hell out of our readers, or make our clients look unprofessional, there are some instances where grammar rules can (and should) be bent when writing online.
writing online – the art of Knowing the rules so that you can break them
Whether you’re writing a book, a report, or content for a website, it’s necessary to write clearly and correctly, so that you can express yourself in coherent sentences and sound credible.
But sometimes, it’s just as important to know how to ignore grammar rules, to make your writing sound more exciting and unique.
Think of Picasso. He drew and painted with almost photographic precision in his youth, until he completely dominated the style of classic painters.
Then, he got bored and broke all the rules.
WHO BREAKS GRAMMAR RULES ONLINE… and why?
Copywriters and web content writers must often smash grammar rules, because it makes for far more interesting reading.
Creating a unique brand voice is a great example of this. Take a look at these websites below. Read them aloud to ‘hear’ their brand voice. Could they have achieved such great copy by sticking to every school grammar rule in the book?
SO HOW DO I ACHIEVE THIS?
Here are some top tips for you…
*DON’T HAVE A STICK UP YOUR BUTT
Academic language is best reserved for college essays – getting too hung up on semicolons and ‘furthermores’ makes web content sound old-fashioned, boring and dry.
*Do sound like you (OR YOUR CLIENT)
Professional bloggers and businesses with an online presence need to sound like they know what they are talking about, but in a conversational tone.
Some of the best web pages communicate with their readers in a personal, chatty and easy-to-read way.
Successful brand copy conjures up the sound of someone speaking in a specific tone of voice, sometimes with an accent, or even creating a mood.
Best way to achive this? Talk out loud. Write that down.
*Start unlearning (some of) the grammar you learned at school
Here are a 5 common grammar rules that most of us learned at school. Let’s look at how to break them, and let your voice come through.
BREAKING RULE #1: “Always write in third person”
Writing university essays and meeting minutes should be done in the third person (as in ‘she said’, ‘they are’). The context requires it.
*WHY BREAK IT ONLINE?*
- Blogging and web content writing is different, because you’re trying to speak to people and catch their attention.
- ‘You’ is much better at making readers feel special. Wouldn’t you agree?
- Addressing people directly in the second person (‘you are’, ‘do you read?’), as if you were having a conversation with them, works best for grabbing attention.
- People read your blog or visit your website expecting to discover who you are, and the unique knowledge you’re offering them. Quirky expressions, tone, syntax and vocabulary make you more personable.
BREAKING RULE #2: “Don’t write IN italics, CAPS OR bold”
This rule springs from novels and script writing. It’s considered bad form for authors to tell readers how to interpret dialogue, or actors how to act, by adding italics, capital letters, and bold text.
*WHY BREAK IT ONLINE?*
- On the web, the user is reading on a screen, which is really difficult for the eyes. Anything that helps break down chunks of text, or categorise ideas, is good.
- Variances in text style make it easier for online readers to pick out words, skim headings, and FIND EMPHASIS in your sentences.
BREAKING RULE #3: “BEWARE THE Comma Splice”
Bear with me, while I get a tiny bit technical.
A comma splice is a mistake that happens when you join two strong clauses with only a comma.
- A strong clause is a group of words that can stand on its own, as in, “Susan has a cat”.
- A weak clause is group of words that cannot stand on its own, as in, “but still not over”.
Strong clauses should be separated by a conjunction (and, but, or), or a semicolon (;) a dash (–) or a full stop (.).
For example, here are two strong clauses joined together:
“My husband is constantly running late and we are always in a rush.”
“My husband is constantly running late. We are always in a rush.”
Incorrect joining (comma splice):
“My husband is constantly running late, we are always in a rush.”
*WHY BREAK IT ONLINE?*
- The reality is that people often talk in a grammatically incorrect way. Many of us would simply say, “My husband is constantly running late, we’re always in a rush.” (Grammatically incorrect, but sounds natural).
- Ask yourself when you’re writing online: how much does it really matter, in this context, whether I’m sticking to grammar rules or not? A good digital writer or copywriter knows how and where to balance those two factors.
- If in doubt about whether to break a rule, read your copy out loud. Ask yourself, does this sentence sound natural?
BREAKING RULE #4: “NEVER START A SENTENCE WITH ‘AND’ OR ‘BUT’”
Your English teacher probably used to tell you that you should never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’.
According to strict grammar rules, you’d need to substitute ‘And’ at the beginning of a sentence with ‘Moreover’, ‘Additionally’ or ‘Furthermore’.
‘But’ would need to be replaced with ‘However’, ‘Nevertheless’ or ‘Moreover’.
*WHY BREAK IT ONLINE?*
- It goes back to sounding real and conversational. Most people wouldn’t use words like ‘nevertheless’ in a sentence when talking to each other.
- Overly long sentences are a no-no online. So sometimes you just need to cut the sentence before a ‘but’ or an ‘and’.
BREAKING RULE #5: KEEP ONE IDEA TO A PARAGRAPH
In formal writing, you’re not supposed to break into a new paragraph until you’ve said everything you need to say about one particular concept or idea.
*WHY BREAK IT?*
- It’s SO hard to read big blocks of text on a computer or mobile screen. Because of screen glare, our eyes just cannot travel from one line to the next, if they’re met with one gigantic block of text.
- Online, text needs to be broken into one- or two-sentence paragraphs for easy reading.
- It’s all about the user. We need to put ourselves into their shoes and make sure they’re having an easy, effortless online experience.
Having said all that…
Even though it’s OK to break certain rules, you still need to adhere to basic spelling, punctuation and syntax rules. Otherwise your writing becomes confusing.
Here’s a classic example:
“Lisa finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” (WTF?)
“Lisa finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.” (Phew, much better!)
To break the rules, you need to know the rules. If you’re not sure, there’s no excuse. Just Google it. Or ask your nearest grammar police / friendly nerd for advice.
In conclusion, I think it’s important to sound credible and professional, while not being too uppity or speaking down to your reader. Balancing correct grammar with a few deliberate errors that sound chatty and create a personal feel works really well.
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