There was a piece on NPR recently about an app, called Hemingway, that’s designed to “make your writing bold and clear.” It does this by highlighting long sentences, passive voice and other grammar no-nos. Then it gives your copy a grade. The radio spot humorously pointed out that actual Hemingway, run through the app, didn’t score very high.

Like Hemingway the author, marketers are known to bend the rules of grammar. We start sentences with conjunctions, end them with prepositions, split infinitives and use sentence fragments freely. But there’s a big difference between sculpting the pliant English language into something unique and mashing it to a pulp. The difference is intention. Intentional rule breaking can make your writing smart and fresh. Unintentional rule breaking makes your writing awkward and confusing, with potential bottom-line results.

Take my recent tax filing experience: After recording all my income, deductibles and credits, Turbo Tax wanted me to spend $70 on audit protection for “piece of mind.”

“It’s just a typo,” you might say. “Big deal.” But it is a big deal. Regardless of product, the one thing every brand sells is trust. Mistakes erode trust. This wasn’t just a writer’s misunderstanding of an idiomatic phrase; it was a company with no quality assurance in place to catch the error. That did not give me PEACE of mind at all. It made me doubt Turbo Tax would be much help in the event of an audit. I opted against the coverage, and I seriously considered tweeting the goof.

So how can you help ensure that everyone in your marketing department is helping your brand instead of inadvertently hurting it?

  1. Forget spellcheck; nothing beats knowing the rules. Give all new staff members a grammar guide* and encourage them to read it first and reference it often. It’s not about memorizing; it’s about knowing where trouble spots may lurk.
  2. Start a staff book club or get an office subscription to The Wall Street Journal. Reading develops our ears and eyes for language.
  3. Be a stickler for the rules that can’t be broken. I am eternally indebted to a college professor who threated to fail me if I didn’t learn the difference between “its” and “it’s.”  The person who calls you a grammar snob now may thank you when he finally stops writing sentences where the pronoun and antecedent disagree.
  4. Few brands have the right tone to successfully pull off texting-inspired spelling, srsly.
  5. Always have someone other than the author proof content before it leaves your physical or virtual walls. I think the best results come from having a dedicated, professional proofreader, but every set of eyes helps.

The greatest benefit of knowing the rules is that it engenders the confidence to go beyond them—to write copy that is bold and clear and creative. In other words, copy that Hemingway the writer would champion, if not Hemingway the app.

* A few of my favorites: Working with Words, by Brian S. Brooks and James L. Pinson; A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker;Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them, by Harry Shaw.

Date: May 14, 2014