Every Friday, the Kuno content team meets to evaluate the effectiveness of our content in regard to the bigger marketing picture and to discuss the latest industry trends and best practices. In a recent session, we briefly touched on this grammar question: When referring to a company, do we use “it” or “they”?
For folks without a strong writing background or who aren’t weirdly excited by grammar, this one seems easy. A company is made up of people, and any company act is a result of a decision made by said people; therefore, a company should be a “they,” right? Well, no. The correct word is actually “it.”
Grammar is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, so I nearly put a crick in my neck I nodded so enthusiastically at this assertion in our meeting. And I certainly did not hesitate to correct my coworker when I found she used “they” in reference to a company in an email she’d written. In fact, I never thought I’d question proper grammar usage in my writing or the writing I do on behalf of our clients.
But I’ve been wrong before.
It all started when I came across this blog from Darren Rowse while hunting for my favorite David Ogilvy quote. No. 10 was the one I was after, but No. 5 was the quote that caught my eye. It reads:
“I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”
In other words, Ogilvy and his team paid little mind to the rules of grammar. Seeing as we call him the “Father of Advertising,” I’d say it worked out OK. The lesson in this, according to Rowse, is to use language that communicates most clearly with your audience—even if that language is less than “proper.”
HubSpot Content Strategist Shannon Johnson echoes Rowse’s sentiment. In a recent blog, she touches on a few writing lessons the general content producing universe can unlearn. If you’re not in college writing, she says, you’re not going to get docked for improper grammar. In fact, “It’s okay to break some of the rules.”
But not everybody agrees. “Informal writing with a casual tone is appropriate for many of our content marketing products. However, using this less than formal writing style has us bending the grammar rules,” says small business marketing coach Debra Murphy. “No matter how lenient the rules have become, there are some grammar mistakes that are never appropriate and can make your content appear sloppy.”
Misuse of punctuation, improper capitalization and common spelling mistakes such as “its” and “it’s” are among Murphy’s top no-nos. And while she doesn’t address the “it” versus “they” question, for the sake of argument, let’s assume she’d be Team Proper Grammar.
It’s true that how we communicate is often much different than how we write. In fact, one of the first lessons aspiring journalists and advertisers—two camps of people who often find themselves working as content marketers—must learn is to write simply. Fewer adjectives. More punctuation.
It’s also true that common usage has a big effect on what’s deemed grammatically correct. Heck, even AP Stylebook editors said “over” is now A-OK to use when referring to a quantity.
There is no clear-cut answer as to whether it’s acceptable to bend the rules of grammar in your content marketing. Much as it always does in our industry, it depends on your unique situation. Ask yourself: For whom am I writing, and how do they write? Study your audience (and its influencers) online and off. You may be surprised to find that even a highly intellectual group will consistently—and unabashedly—make grammar blunders.
I’m not saying the rules of grammar are to be completely ignored. There will always be some errors that will make you look silly to your audience and unprofessional to fellow content marketers. The important thing is to communicate in such a way that will help you achieve your marketing goals. And yes, that may mean breaking some of the grammar rules.
What’s your opinion on bending the rules of grammar in content marketing? Sound off in the comments!
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