This month, we answer a question that haunts any B2B content writer who’s ever argued about whether their copy needs to match what a client or stakeholder learned at school: how much do we really need to follow the “rules” of grammar?
Andy Bacon says: “The question I’ve got for you is whether grammar is important in copywriting. So, for example, may we start a sentence with ‘and’?”
As anyone who’s been near social media will tell you, this debate gets pretty heated. So to answer the question, we found someone with experience on both sides. Rishi Dastidar is both a poet and head of brand language at Brandpie – so he understands the creative potential of breaking the rules, and the reasons why a brand might want to preserve them.
This month’s co-host, Irene Triendl, also shares her perspective as a B2B copywriter, strategist, and bilingual writer working in a language she had to learn.
As always, we also bring you a copywriting tip of the month. We hear from John Kerrison, a Senior Copywriter here at Radix. And he’s going to convince you to get rid of your thesaurus once and for all.
And finally, as it’s episode 101, we thought it would be fun to find out what B2B buzzword you wanted to banish to Room 101… and you definitely didn’t hold back! Thanks to everyone who joined in the debate, whether on Propolis or LinkedIn: Steve Kemish, Amanda Holmes, Natalie Boon, Skip Fidura, Nigel Graber, Ray Philpott, Robert Joy, Anja Jones, Colin Gentry, Mark Brighton, Katy Young, Nic Simpson, Anna S, Ben Rotheray, Julian Tintinger, and everyone else! It was tough to narrow it down to just one word, but thankfully that was Irene’s job, not ours.
You’ll find a full transcript of this month’s episode at the end of this post.
So, how important is correct grammar in B2B content, really?
As Rishi so excellently puts it, correct grammar “is as important as what your brand image and positioning determines it to be”. If your brand needs to be perceived as traditional or detail focused, that might be pretty important. If you want to be seen as a rulebreaker, the opposite could be true.
For example, if you’re in the business of nuclear safety, then following the rules of grammar as closely as possible could be seen to reflect the care with which you follow safety measures when dealing with critical situations.
If, on the other hand, your business doesn’t face such life-and-death situations, then you have a lot more wiggle room to use grammar how you want to use it. You can get a bit creative if it makes sense for you to do so (provided your meaning is still clear).
Once and for all… is it OK to start a sentence with “and” or “but”?
There’s also the question of whether the perceived rules are really rules at all.
The example Andy gives in his question, starting a sentence with a conjunction, is not so much a rule, as a perception of a rule. Merriam-Webster has even weighed in on the debate, stating: “Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with and, and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong.”
As Rishi says: “Grammar is, effectively, the system and frameworks that allow us to understand. And they, like the content that they support, are subject to flux and change – like language itself. So the fundamental question that you are asking is are the structures that I am putting my language into functioning to aid understanding? That’s your starting point.”
So as long as your writing has clarity, as long as your audience can fully understand the points you’re making, then the rest is down to your brand persona – or your own personal taste. And as far as I’m concerned, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens, then it’s good enough for me.
In this episode, you’ll find…
1:15 – We welcome our co-host Irene Triendl to B2BQ&A.
5:15 – We put Andy Bacon’s question to Rishi Dastidar.
20:40 – Our copywriting tip of the month from John Kerrison.
21:45 – We discuss what buzzwords you want to banish to Room 101… forever.
Have you got a question for B2BQ&A?
How to listen:
- You can download the episode here (right-click and select “Save As” to download)
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- And don’t forget you can follow us on Spotify
- Firstly, thank you to Irene Triendl. You’ve been an excellent co-host.
- Thanks, Andy Bacon, for your question; we loved discussing it.
- And thank you to Rishi Dastidar. You gave us a brilliant answer, and loads to think about.
- Thanks to John Kerrison, for that superb copywriting tip of the month.
- And last but absolutely not least, thank you to everyone who contributed your nominations for buzzwords to send to Room 101; they were great fun to hear.
Podcast editing and music by Bang and Smash
Transcript: B2BQ&A 101: How important is correct grammar in B2B content?
Andy Bacon: So the question I’ve got for you is whether grammar is important in copywriting. So, for example, may we start a sentence with ‘and’?
Irene Triendl: That’s a really good question. Let’s ask Rishi Dastidar!
David McGuire: Hello listener; you are very welcome to B2BQ&A, the podcast where we go in search of an answer to your question about B2B content writing. This is episode 101.
Irene: And in a moment, we’ll ask the poet and brand linguist Rishi Dastidar, a question from Andy Bacon: just how important is correct grammar and B2B copy? And is it okay to start a sentence with a conjunction?
David: We’ll also hear a copywriting tip of the month from John Kerrison, and reveal which B2B buzzwords you most want to banish into Room 101. But first, introductions. My name is David McGuire. I’m creative director at Radix Communications, the B2B writing agency, and I’m joined by a wonderful guest co-host, it’s B2B tech content strategist, writer, consultant and all round force of nature. Irene Triendl. Irene, hello.
Irene: Hey, David, thanks for having me on. It’s great to be here.
David: It’s very good to have you on the show. Was that an appropriate introduction?
Irene: Yeah, that’s very good. Thanks for that.
David: And so you’re working under the name: Say What? At the moment, I tried to pronounce the question mark in it. Is that right?
Irene: Yeah, it does. It has a question mark. And I think usually when I go on the Companies House website, they don’t like that. So it’s Say What? Limited in that and it’s always a problem in any of the online forms.
David: And that’s kind of a content consultancy for B2B tech firms. Is that right?
Irene: Yes. So I help B2B tech companies, whether that’s big companies or start-ups with basically their messaging with their positioning, with finding a good story that they identify with, and that also their prospects are going to recognize and respond to.
David: And you’ve always sort of been drawn to B2B tech, it seems what is it that you like about it so much?
Irene: Well, a few reasons actually, I think. So I think for one thing, what I like about it is that it’s hard. There are no easy answers. So there’s always a challenge there. The other thing I love is that B2B tech gets incredibly niche-y. So you learn the most amazing things about the most obscure subjects and professions. And so that’s pretty cool about it. But I think the other thing is that, you know, a lot of tech clients are usually super smart, but often aren’t great at communication. So, you’ve got a responsibility to do right by your clients.
So when I come in to help protect business with their messaging, and their positioning, sometimes I feel like I’m doing something almost arrogant, right? Like I’m getting into a space I know nothing about until that point. And if I do my job, right, then I end up almost teaching them something new about their world. And I help them and their prospects see what they do a little differently.
And that takes a lot of research and questioning your own assumptions and theirs and checking again and again and think: Did I really get that right? But when you do get it right, and you help a tech brand with their narrative, and then they both recognize that story, but also see themselves in a new light, then that’s fantastically rewarding.
And I guess marketing, good marketing, whether that’s B2B or B2C really comes down to empathy, and some sort of insight into your audience, and I think in B2B, you need to flex your empathy muscles a little bit more, because, it is so niche-y. And because maybe it might be a bit harder to really understand what it’s like to be a CTO in a cryptocurrency start-up. But when you do get that right, then it just feels great.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Irene, would you mind performing your first official duty as our guest co-host? And tell the listener how they can get in touch with us, please?
Irene: Yes, absolutely. Listener, if you have any questions or comments, you can find Radix on LinkedIn or Twitter @radixcom. Or, if you want us to answer your question on a future episode, record a quick voice note and send it by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
David: Excellently done. Thank you.
Irene: And now it’s time for the actual Q&A part of the B2BQ&A. This month our question comes from marketing strategy consultant, B2B marketing strategy director, and most importantly, Gin-magnate, Andy Bacon. And he’s asking about grammar.
Andy: Hi, David and team. Thank you for a brilliant podcast series. It’s Andy Bacon here. So the question I’ve got for you is whether grammar is important in copywriting. So, for example, may we start a sentence with ‘and’? I look forward to hearing your deliberations. Thanks team. Bye.
David: Thanks for the kind words and flattery it seems will indeed get you anywhere. This question raises an issue that I know copywriters, marketers, clients and stakeholders argue about every day. What constitutes correct grammar? Who makes the rules? And how much does it even matter? So to answer I chatted with a guest that has twin perspectives on the issue. Rishi Dastidar is both a poet and head of brand language at Brandpie. So he knows all about the effects of following and discarding linguistic rules. I started by asking him, how important is it that B2B brands use correct grammar?
Rishi Dastidar: It is as important as what your brand image and positioning determines it to be, which sounds like a cop out, and isn’t meant to be a cop out. But of course, it’s really dependent on who you are, what business you’re in, and what your brand actually stands for, and represents.
So for example, if you are a business, who is, you know, let’s say, hypothetically, in the business of nuclear safety, yeah, I really, really, really prefer it if you had a pretty tight grasp on English grammar Partly for clarity, but partly also to convey the sense that you know what you’re doing, and you follow the rules. And so therefore, I can trust you to do similar on the critical things that you do.
If you are doing something less life threatening and with less national security implications, then I think you can probably have a little more fun with it. Because grammar does many things. Yes, it’s a set of rules. Yes, it’s a form of policing. But it also conveys an image or an impression as much as anything else. And so yeah, if your brand image is actually around, breaking some rules, cutting some corners, doing things differently, then actually knowing when to flex away from those rules, and what those rules might be perceived to be, actually gives you a chance to actually change and mess up your image slightly.
David: And you mentioned perception there and what the rules are perceived to be. Because the example Andy gave, you know, starting a sentence with a conjunction, right starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ that’s not really a rule as far as I can make out, but it’s perceived to be a rule.
Rishi: Strictly speaking, it never actually does any harm to start a sentence in that way. Because are you genuinely saying that meaning is misunderstood if you start with an and or above? No, clearly not. So then we’re into taste right? And, you know, which way do you go? If you just say, and enforce a rule like that, you’re at some level subliminally suggesting we’re a slightly old fashioned tone of voice. We’ve got these reasons for sticking with these perceived rules.
I would suggest that moving away from that probably brings you closer to where the majority of people are writing and speaking right now. And if I have aspirations to speak to a relatively larger audience, a relatively mainstream audience, I would far rather be on that side of the ledger, rather than the other side.
But again, to cycle back to what I said earlier, caveat, caveat, caveat, it’s what’s right for your brand. There are absolutely going to be some brands where that stickler for detail, conveying that level of formality is absolutely right, and go ahead. But know that is the case. Don’t just idly fall into the ‘well I was taught this at school so therefore this is the correct way’. We know that language changes. We know that it evolves, and grammar and syntax evolves as part of that as well. So don’t just rely on the assumptions that you might have been taught 20/30 years ago, actually listen and see as to what’s going on in terms of contemporary diction in terms of contemporary writing. And then take your decision based on that. As much as anything you might have been taught in the past.
David: Absolutely, because I think being seen to break a perceived rule – I mean starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ – you know, Shakespeare did it, Dickens did it, going right back Chaucer did it.
Rishi: It’s not that there are hard and fast rules, it is knowing the communication and knowing the audience and knowing the time. I don’t want a court summons to start ‘oy oy, watchya, see ya in the nick’. That’s just not right. But again, if you’re sending a chatty email, if you’re sending a text message, what why wouldn’t it.
One of the things that means that poetry has the effects that it has that is different often from prose, is precisely because of the way that it does play with syntax, and break syntax. And actually force reading, in particular, into places that don’t feel necessarily comfortable. So you might run on sentences that are more uncomfortable to read out loud, or you might deliberately withhold punctuation.
Or you might do things like add a conjunction to a word where it’s surprising, I mean, say for example that you take the prefix’ un’, adding ‘un’ to almost any noun gives you a poetic effect. Now, strictly speaking, what you’re doing there is messing around with grammar to achieve something, and what you’re trying to achieve is a pause in the reader to make them think differently, make them consider something in a different way.
And so you’re deliberately trying to break up flow, you’re deliberately trying to force a pause in their thought, basically. And that’s when knowing the power that breaking syntax can have, that’s when it gives you a real force. And so again, there’s that tension between how do I make the rules work for me versus how do I obey the rules?. And we’re doing this subconsciously all the time as writers. And we more often than not will do it on the basis of how do I best answer the brief. But some of that consideration, and some of the effects that you want to achieve, do go in things like, what rules can I break?
David: Just to summarize then, the rules of grammar, such as we might think of them, they are probably less clear, and fewer than one might think. But at the same time, it’s at that point, it becomes a style choice. It’s not correct/incorrect grammar, it’s formal versus informal writing more often – some things are just incorrect grammar.
Rishi: Yeah, some things are but if we take a step back grammar is what? Grammar is, effectively, the system, the frameworks that allow us to understand. And they, like the content that they support, are subject to flux and change like language itself. So the fundamental question that you are asking is are the structures and the scaffolding that I am putting my language into, are they functioning to aid understanding? That’s your starting point.
David: Thanks again, Andy, for your question. And thank you Rishi, for such a thoughtful and thought provoking answer. Irene, I know you have to have some thoughts about this. Care to jump in?
Irene: Yeah, absolutely. So the question about grammar, my first impulse when I hear: can you use incorrect grammar? I always think, what are your assumptions when you say that? The person who says that, what are they thinking? What are the assumptions behind that? As someone who’s studied not only languages but also a bit of linguistics, I think it’s interesting to think about this in terms of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar.
There’s prescriptive grammar, which is, you know, with all of our words there’s a right and a wrong. And compared to that, there’s descriptive grammar, which is all about, this is how people actually use language these days. And so obviously there’s lots of things that are highly problematic with prescriptive grammar because it enforces certain hierarchies and ignores minority uses of a language, etc, etc.
But I think, I mean, the thing that really annoys me about it is that people are so smug about it. And I think behind that is an assumption that knowing the rules of grammar somehow makes you more intelligent. And I think they’re often the ones that, you know, end up acting like there’s a problem or like, they haven’t understood something properly when really there was no ambiguity there at all. So I think if we’re thinking about what they mean, what do you mean by correct grammar? Do you mean language that that’s an unambiguous and easily understood, then yeah, okay.
But then language isn’t just that, that’s just one function of language. It’s also very poetic and emotive and performative and all of that. So, then I think when we’re talking about copywriting, then maybe clarity would be a better term to use and say if it’s not clear enough rather than the grammar isn’t correct. Or it’s not persuasive enough. That’s a different thing, right?
Or, do you mean formal expression? Do you want to be more formal? And I think that’s based on another, what I think is a misconception that formality somehow equals authority right? That you know, just because you can dress up a bad take in a Victorian frock. Still be a bad take. Like, you know, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
David: I mean, you have experience of working in Asia, particularly as a former Velocity writer and things like that, where a lot of the time you will have been pushing things, I guess, to kind of be quite edgy from a writing style point of view. You must have had that: you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ conversation with a client, at some point, right? I mean, we’ve all had that. How do you approach something like that?
Irene: I think it probably sets every copywriter on edge. It’s an immediate trigger. But I think you do have to be quite diplomatic. And you really need to, I think, need to try to understand where are they coming from? Is that something that their boss said? Is it something they’ve remembered from school, etc? So I think you need to really engage with, and really talk about what they’re trying to do with that piece of copy.
So that’s really what it comes down to, it’s not so much about grammar, but about style. What are you trying to do with this? Do you want to sound different from the rest? Or do you want to sound exactly like the rest? And I think that’s when you then can have a conversation. But you do need to be open to almost starting with the basics, what is this piece of copy meant to do for you?
And I think it’s interesting, I just, I had a thought when you said this is what you wanted to talk about. I thought, actually, I can think of a few cases where following the rules of grammar would actually not be appropriate. Like, for instance, right? If I were to kind of, especially when it’s like some obscure rule, right? Like if I were to insist that the correct plural of octopus is octopodes because it’s from Greek, wouldn’t that draw attention to myself. And I’m making a big fuss about something that’s not the point
David: Yeah. And I mean in B2B tech using data as the plural of datum, you know, and so the data show, rather than the data shows, I mean, who talks like that!
Irene: Exactly. At the same time, I speak a bit of Italian, and I cringe when people order one Panini because Panini is plural. And it makes me cringe. But I’m also aware that if I went into the cafe around the corner and ordered one panino I just sound like a bit of a twat, right? So you know, sometimes you’ve just got to make a call.
David: So this is why whenever we see you in a cafe, you’re eating two panini.
Irene: … That’s what happened.
David: Because you couldn’t order just one.
Irene: Absolutely. You’ve, again, I feel seen.
David: And can I ask if I may? Is it different that experience for you as a bilingual person? Is that something where you’ve had to kind of learn the rules of English on purpose, where for a lot of us, who grew up speaking it, we just internalize it.
Irene: Yeah, of course. I’ve had to learn the rules of English. But I love language and I love playing with it. And as a bilingual copywriter sometimes when I hear a new phrase that I’ve never heard in English or an idiom, one of the first things is oh great I’m going to use you. I’m going to try you out. I’m going to play with you. And so that’s beautiful, for me the interesting stuff really in any language happens between the rules and in the little crevices between common usage or accepted usage.
Now, it’s time to hear our copywriting tip of the month. Come on in, John.
John Kerrison: I’m John Kerrison and I’m a senior copywriter at Radix Communications. My copywriting tip is to limit your vocabulary. That sounds like the opposite of what a writer should do. But often you’ll see people who are just starting out try and flex their inner thesaurus and pepper their copy with words you’d never use in conversation. It’s important to remember that your job isn’t to show off, it’s to make things really clear and engaging for your reader. So as an example, instead of saying my work suffers from sesquipedalian loquacious, you can just say, I use too many long words.
David: Please accept our profound zealous gratitude, John. We are much obliged for the benediction of your most erudite sagacity. Irene, do you care to elucidate further?
Irene: No, not really, except to say John’s spot on.
David: While we’re talking about vocabulary, and this being Episode 101 of the podcast, I thought it would be good fun to play Room 101 and ask what buzzwords people would like to banish from B2B content forever. And they really, really didn’t hold back. Irene, are you ready for this?
Irene: Absolutely. I’m really curious to hear these. Let’s go.
David: Okay. On Propolis, Steve Kemish and Amanda Holmes would both like to ban ‘ABM’. Natalie Boon thinks ‘impact’ has lost its.. well… impact. And Skip Fidura would like to see the back of ‘ideate’ and ‘omnichannel’.
Irene: Well, ‘omnichannel’ only if you’re not writing any e-commerce content, right?
David: I think he prefers ‘multichannel’ but you’d have to ask Skip. Meanwhile, on LinkedIn, it went really wild. Nigel Graber nominates ‘passionate’. I once wrote a whole blog post about that one. Ray Philpott hates ‘key’ and ‘innovative’. Robert Joy also hates ‘impact’. He says it’s because people don’t know how to use ‘affect’ and ‘effect’.
Irene: Might have a point.
David: Anja Jones, Colin Gentry, Mark Brighton, and Katy Young all want to ban ‘leverage’. Nick Simpson wants to eject ‘solution’ into space.
Irene: Yeah, totally with that one.
David: Absolutely. And a lot of hate for ‘utilize’ including from Anna S, Ben Rotheray, and Colin Gentry… And so many more: ‘facilitate’, ‘best in class’, ‘new normal’, ‘collaboration’, ‘transformation’, ‘disruptive’, ‘B2P’, ‘AI’, ‘piece’ – as in a piece of content not as in the concept of peace I hope – ‘holistic’, ‘opportunity’, ’empower’. Basically, there’s blood in the water.
Irene: I’m guilty of a few of those.
David: It became an absolute feeding frenzy on LinkedIn. Special mentioned to Julian Titinger, who wants to ban the word ‘cloud’ that’s a big shout.
Irene: Yeah, good luck with that one.
David: It’s up to you Irene, so let’s open the door to Room 101. What one word should we lock in there forever?
Irene: Just one?
David: Yeah, I’m only giving you one. The whole of B2B content would collapse if we took all of those outright?
Irene: Very true. So if it’s just one I am going to go with my absolute pet peeve which is… ‘utilize’.
David: Yes! I can hear the people cheering from here. Utilize, in you go and we’ll slam the door. Right then. Job done
Irene: Nice. My absolute pet peeve wasn’t on the list. And it’s less of a B2B tech content word. It’s more of a LinkedIn word. And it’s ‘humbled’.
David: Oh, that’s a big shout. That’s a really big shout.
And that is all we have time for this episode. Irene, please would you thank this month’s contributors
Irene: Yes. So huge thanks to Rishi Dastidar for the interview, and Andy Bacon for the question. I hope you feel we’ve answered it adequately. Thanks also to John, for the copywriting tip of the month. And to all the many, many people who vented about their most hated B2B buzzwords and cliches. Sorry, we couldn’t mention everyone.
David: And thanks to you, Irene, you have been an awesome co-host. If the listener wants to get in touch with you or hear more of your wisdom and your thoughts, how can they do that?
Irene: Well, you can check out my website at say-what.org where I post blog posts less frequently than I’d like to, you could email me at email@example.com or you could just connect with me on LinkedIn.
David: Brilliant, and we’ll put links to all of that in the show notes as well. Listener, remember, it could be your question that we answer in a future episode. If you have a question for B2BQ&A to answer email a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on social media.
David: I’ll see you next month for another B2BQ&A when we’ll be answering: Why is there so little humour in B2B content? If you have thoughts or answers, do send them our way. Until then, make good content and remember: no court in the world is going to accept the absence of a comma as grounds for killing and eating your grandma.
David and Irene: Goodbye!