February 04, 2014
There’s a new turn of phrase in the English language called the because-noun. Born out of social media, this is the act of slapping the word “because” directly against a noun as a kind of trendy shorthand.
Saying “because sleep” instead of “because I need sleep” turns a flat statement into a snappy, ironic social commentary, complete with an am-I-right? eye roll.
By removing a few words from a typical, grammatically correct sentence, we can explain a situation and comment on it at the same time.
We can also reference heavy concepts in a tongue-in-cheek way, effectively making a point without really delivering any concrete information.
You might think this sounds ridiculous now—another example of modern technology encouraging laziness—but this is exactly the kind of thing that’s seeping into our culture and our language.
How long will it be before the because-noun is accepted in everyday speech? Before you see it in marketing copy? Before it shows up in style guides?
The marketing tone battle
It’s increasingly acceptable—even encouraged—to use a casual, conversational tone in marketing communications.
In other words: more and more companies are writing the way they talk.
But what’s the right balance between a chatty neighborly tone and one that conveys professionalism and competence? Is it possible to achieve both? Are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed, in either direction?
Should we write the way we talk?
If you pop the phrase “write the way you talk” into Google, you’ll find yourself on a battlefield. Half of the results are articles offering that exact advice, while the other half have titles like Why You Should Never Write Like You Talk.
The general arguments
- Writing like we talk saves us from sounding pretentious and using big words when small ones will do just fine.
- We’re more successful at connecting with our readers and building relationships when we’re addressing them in a friendly, conversational tone.
- Sometimes the colloquial way of saying something is just the most easily understood way.
- We include a lot of “umms” and “hmms” in our everyday speech—space fillers that don’t belong in written text.
- We don’t speak that well in the first place, so why mimic language that’s already poor?
- We rely on inflection to convey meaning in speech, which doesn’t translate to written text. It also allows us to be lazy about word choice and sentence construction, further exacerbating the previous point.
What we should really be after
The problem with the “against” arguments is that they focus on the details instead of the lessons.
If you admire the Dalai Lama, you don’t have to copy his every behavior to reflect the influence of his teachings in your life. You don’t have to agree with every word in a book to benefit from it as a whole.
Writer Robert Warren describes a conversational tone as “formal language designed to look informal” and the “new-and-improved natural speech, polished to a shine and missing all the embarrassing parts.”
Writing like you talk means writing like you would ideally talk, if you had time to craft your words before you delivered them. It means including the casual aspects of spoken language that give the illusion of a personal exchange (dare you start a sentence with “but”?) without any of the junk that distracts from meaning even in spoken language.
The power of natural rhythm
As for inflection being a crutch of modern speech—that may be true. But inflection is also the tool we use to add emotion, passion and confidence to our spoken words, and it’s absolutely something that can and should show up in written copy.
Warren explains that conversational tone has a certain rhythm, and the most evocative, memorable language is almost musical.
What does it sound like when a long sentence is followed by a few punchy short ones? What happens when you go for the fun alliteration and the quirky metaphor instead of the predictable phrasing?
If you think about it, some of the greatest speeches and most memorable snippets of language have a lyrical quality to them. (Case in point—one of many.)
That’s the true value of spoken language.
In addition to adding appeal, a rhythm designed to mimic natural speech will also give your copy fluidity.
People should be able to read your writing easily, the way they’d understand a spoken conversation easily. They should see words they recognize, presented in logical ways. They should get it, exactly as you intended them to, the very first time they read it.
Rhythm can do that.
We all know—academically—that language is constantly evolving (thanks to the internet, now faster than ever). Like it or not, today’s colloquial terminology is tomorrow’s standard English language.
But are we willing to actually embrace the changes on the horizon?
Effective writers look for the language that’s going to allow them to best connect with their unique audiences, regardless of formality, origin or grammatical acceptance.
At its core, that’s what marketing is all about.
How much colloquialism do you think is appropriate in marketing? Should colloquialism ever trump proper grammar?