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Breaking the rules of grammar

Can grammar be glamorous? Due to its meticulous nature, the study of grammar has been saddled with an undeserved intimidating reputation.

Esteemed linguist David explains how grammar is an essential tool for communication. Demystifying the rules behind the English language can allow us to communicate effectively both professionally and casually.

In the following excerpt from Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, Crystal demonstrates how to break the rules by analyzing the grammatical risks taken in commercial advertising and journalism.

In occupational varieties such as religion, law, and sports commentary, the situational constraints of grammar are tight and well respected by practitioners. It would be virtually impossible for the professionals involved to use a kind of language that didn’t conform to the expected norms.

Indeed, in some circumstances, if the wrong kind of language was used, there might be social sanctions, such as (in law) a charge of contempt of court or (in religion) an accusation of blasphemy or heresy. However, not all occupations have their language so tightly constrained.

In commercial advertising and journalism, there are grammatical rules that are generally followed, but the bending and breaking of those rules is commonplace and privileged.

Take the most basic rule of all: that writing intended for national public consumption should display present-day standard English grammar. This means an avoidance of nonstandard items such as “ain’t,” regional dialect constructions such as “we was” or “I were” sat, and obsolete forms such as “ye” and “goeth. But it doesn’t take long before we see all these usages in print and online, often as eye-catching headlines for articles on web pages.

“We wuz robbed, viewers” – an article in Daily Mail Online

“There’s gold in them there hills” – report in The Telegraph of a Scottish estate which contains untapped gold reserves

“The corporate taxman cometh” – article in The Economist on taxation

“Abandon sleep all ye that enter here” – report in Trip Advisor

“Nigeria ain’t broke, it just needs to fix its tax system” –article in The Guardian 

Community memory holds a large store of archaic or regional forms upon which headline writers and journalists frequently rely, usually to produce a catchy headline or to add an element of humor or parody to an article. And it doesn’t take long before clever writers begin to play with the forms, taking them to new rhetorical heights. The idiomatic expression underlying the last example above “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has generated many variants:

 “If it ain’t broke, break it” – an article about writing new kinds of crime novels

“Hey, Twitter: if it ain’t broke, don’t add 9.8K characters to it” – a post about a Twitter proposal to allow longer tweets

“If it ain’t broke, don’t upgrade it” – a post on a new release of Photoshop

“If we can’t fix it, it ain’t broke” – a sign outside a car repair shop in the USA

An Internet search will bring to light many more.

Any grammatical rule can be bent or broken in the advertising world. For example, there’s no theoretical upper limit to the number of adjectives we can have before a noun, but it’s unusual to encounter more than two or three. Certainly not 12, as in this ad from a few years ago: “Why do you think we make Nuttall’s Mintoes such a devilishly smooth cool creamy minty chewy round slow velvety fresh clean solid buttery taste?”

Or again, we all have a free hand to make compound adjectives in a noun phrase, such as best-selling and far-reaching.

But none of us outside advertising would go in for such coinages as farmhouse-fresh (taste), rain-and-stain-resisting (cloth), and all-round-the-garden (fertilizer). A single instance might not be very noteworthy; but the repeated use of a grammatical feature becomes very noticeable in a longer ad.

Note the number of pre-noun sequences in this example from Geoffrey Leech’s classic English in Advertising (1966):

Fantastic acceleration from the 95 bhp Coventry Climax OHC engine, more stopping power from the new 4-wheel servo-assisted disc brakes and greater flexibility from the all synchromesh close ratio gearbox. These and many other new refinements combine to present the finest and fastest light GT car in the world.

There aren’t many words left!

When we see written ads, our eyes are inevitably drawn to the visual featuresthe product image, the graphic design, the colors, the dramatic vocabulary. With spoken ads, our ears immediately pick up the rhythm and melody of the words (the “jingles”), the repeated use of sounds (“Built better by Bloggs!”), and any melodramatic tones of voice. In neither case do we notice the role of grammar in making the words cohere, and yet it is critical. If we want to explain the effect of an ad, a newspaper article, a prayerany distinctive use of languagethen we have to pay careful attention to the grammatical features that give these styles their structure and coherence.

Explanations are what matter. It’s never enough to simply describe the features of a style. We also need to ask why these features have developed in the way they have. In the case of law and religion, we have to go back into history to see the reasonsto do with case-law precedents and biblical sources. In the case of sports commentary we look to the ongoing action to explain the style. With ads, we have to enter the minds of the sales and marketing teams, whose aims are fourfold:

  • To get us to notice the ad
  • To maintain our interest so that we want to read it or listen to it
  • To remember the name of the product
  • And then, of course, to buy it

Accordingly, a more judicious grammatical approach can be of benefit, in that it can help us think critically about the subtly persuasive ways in which advertising language operates.

Something works “better”? That’s an unspecified comparative.

Better than what? When? Where? This is economic linguistics.

Grammar can save us money.

Featured image credit: “grammar-abc-dictionary-words” by PDPics. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    ‘“we was” or “I were”’ sat:
    Do you mean “we was sat” and “I were sat”, or do you mean to endorse the active meaning as well as or instead of the passive meaning?

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