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This post was written on 13 Sep 2011 and is filed under Uncategorized.






Down with “The”


Filler sucks.

You know, that stuff they use to fill out the meat in sausages so they can scrimp on the production costs. The air that gets pumped into your bag of Lay’s to make three chips look like 50. The rambling verbiage that 12-year-olds put in their essays to turn 300 words into 500.

You’re not 12 anymore. It’s time to cut the shite.

Filler will kill your copywriting. I’ve written on copywriting length before. In that previous post I mentioned the technique of writing as much as you think you need – and then cutting it in half. Well, one of the best ways to do that is to rid yourself of filler.

Halving, though, is a blanket technique. Slicing away the fat becomes even more critical when you’re looking specifically at high-traffic copy areas – headlines, subheads, bullet points, call outs, etc.

 

I’ll See You That and Raise You One

Star blogger and tweeter Grammar Girl (@GrammarGirl if you’re not already following her) started off a tweet-a-thon recently about disappearing articles in marketing speak. It even landed her in a Wall Street Journal article on the topic. While the piece largely focused on “the” disappearing from brand names (which is very smart marketing in my book), I have to take that one step further and address the role it plays in other high-traffic copy objects.

 

Evict the Squatters in Your Copywriting

Headlines are prime real-estate. Don’t let “the” squat on your territory, especially as the first word. These filler words weaken the impact of your copy. Be sharp. Be concise. Be blunt.

There’s a subtle but important difference between, say, “Sunrise over Sea” and “The Sunrise over the Sea”. In the blink of an eye, Option 1 is stronger. That’s what you usually have to grab someone’s attention – the blink of an eye. Be careful not to water down your message.

Out of context, this phenomenon can be hard to get your head around. But dwell on it for a while as you read others’ copy or craft your own. You will begin to see how this often-overlooked distinction can improve or dilute your writing. It’s a principle engrained into me by my mentor. It’s a principle I’ve practiced for years. And it’s a principle I’ve instilled in many other copywriters who have had the privilege or punishment of working under me.

Now, I’m not totally, absolutely, forever and always anti-the. The definite article has its uses. I’m sure I’ve written it into copy hundreds of thousands of times. I just think copywriters should “apply sparingly”.

(As you might have noticed, there’s a “the” in the subhead for this section. Without it, the line would have connoted something slightly different. I kept “the” here because it works.)

 

Call to Arms

In sum – go skinny on the the’s.

Sorry, Grammar Girl. I know you’ve resigned yourself to accepting some of the “bad grammar” used by marketers even if you won’t convert to the dark side. I respect you and appreciate the public service you provide to befuddled writers everywhere, but the marketer in me has to aggressively take up the banner on this issue. Down with “the”!

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Mignon (Grammar Girl)
    September 13, 2011

    Thanks for the post. I just want to set the record straight a bit.

    I don’t recall a “tweet-a-thon” about disappearing articles in marketing speak. I don’t believe I’ve ever written on the topic, so there weren’t specific tweets about articles that “landed” me in the Wall Street Journal article. Neal Whitman once wrote a Grammar Girl episode about articles, but it was largely targeted at people who are learning English.

    I actually agree in general that dropping articles can be an effective marketing technique. I talked at length with the reporter about how dropping articles could be a way to personify a product or subtly try to make a connection between an attribute and the product. For example, we likely wouldn’t say, “Buy the happiness.” We’d be more likely to say, “Buy happiness.” She chose to quote other people she interviewed on those points, but those points are at least alluded to the article.

    It’s common for reporters to have far, far more material and good quotes than they can use in an article, so they choose the best ones or the ones that make their story flow best, and that often leaves readers with a one-dimensional view of each person who was interviewed. I’m not complaining. I’ve been a reporter, and that’s just how it works. But please don’t assume you know exactly what I think (or, really, what anyone thinks!) after reading two sentences in a newspaper article.

    The really strange thing is that people seem to be reading into my comments whatever they want to see. When I read the article, I was worried I’d get a lot of flak from prescriptivists for saying I don’t care about bad grammar in marketing. Look at what I said…the main points are that I’m not outraged and it’s hard to say it’s wrong. Taken alone, that’s also a gross oversimplification of what I really think, but it’s the more accurate representation of the quotation.

    • B. Ligerent
      September 13, 2011

      You’re welcome. And oops.

      Looking back, I see I got the cause and effect mixed up. There was a deluge of tweets on the topic that came through my Grammar Girl list in TweetDeck, but they were all retweets and responses after the article was published.

      I’ve never worked as a reporter, but I’ve been interviewed a handful of times and have had clients interviewed much, much more often … plus seen my press releases or out-in-the-public-eye marketing copy drawn from. I’m very familiar with the flattening and skewing phenomenon. Sorry if I was a bit too presumptuous in what your opinions are on the matter. And thanks for setting the record straight. And thanks for taking the time to elaborate here.