Magnificent obsession or just attention to detail?

[Image courtesy of Nutdanai at]

Recently, a friend told me I was obsessive about grammar. Which I took, naturally, as a compliment. For one woman’s obsession is another man’s passion. Or attention to detail. As with most things, it depends on your point of view. And in the case of my friend, her point of view was that she thought that grammar doesn’t really matter. As long as people know more or less what you’re saying, that’s OK. The trouble is that you might just more or less make the sale depending on what you say. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather more than less. Sales and marketing copy isn’t just throwing words on a page and hoping they’re OK: it’s about getting all the little things right that send out cues to your readers. Cues that tell them you’re the one they want to do business with. So in the latest of my occasional series about those little grammar things that make a big difference – and that every writer should know – let’s look at two tweaks you can make to your copy that’ll make it sound more natural and connect with your reader.

Active or passive?

When we write, we often unwittingly slip into business-speak, because we think it sounds more professional. And it does, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. Remember, your audience are not a class of badly-behaved pupils sitting quietly listening to a lecture. They can (virtually) get up and walk out any time they like. A big part of business-speak is the use of the passive voice. So you end up with sentences like:
  • Steps will be taken to reduce waste.
  • You’ll be contacted by a customer service representative.
  • Your order will be delivered by 5pm the next working day.
To turn passive into active, and cold into warm and friendly, simply flip it around. So this:
Steps will be taken to reduce waste.
Becomes this:
We’ll take steps to reduce waste.
Similarly, you wave your magic wand and you have:
  • A customer service representative will contact you.
  • We’ll deliver your order by 5pm the next working day.
The resulting sentence sounds immediately more conversational – because it is. In real life, we use the active much more than the passive. If you want to write like you speak, active it is.

Would have liked to have done

If active beats passive, then simple beats complicated. If you’re talking about a situation that could have happened, but didn’t, then you simply say something like this:
I would have liked to attend the conference.
Or this:
I’d like to have attended the conference.
Strictly speaking, they mean slightly different things, but to all intents and purposes, they’re they same. The point here is that you only need the conditional past (as it’s called) once. And yet you increasingly hear:
I would have liked to have attended the conference.
It’s not wrong (as is often the case with grammar, there’s no right and wrong) but it sounds clumsy and inelegant. It also makes the possibility of attending the conference a very remote one, as if it never really mattered in the first place. So if in doubt, leave the second ‘have’ out. It sounds more natural, and makes more sense. And more importantly, it makes you sound like somebody who cuts to the chase and says what they mean.


As you can see, neither of these is actually incorrect. It’s more a question of the impression you create. In a world where perception is reality, you want to control and manage that perception.

With the passive voice, you sound distant and remote. With the second construction, you sound as if you’re unnecessarily complicating a sentence that should be simple. Or that you’re trying to sound more formal and ‘correct’.

With sales and marketing copy, simplicity is king. Cut it back, pare it down, take it out and make it short. Result? Copy that sounds more human – and that connects with other humans.

Which is exactly what you want.