Rogue Ink

May 23, 2008

War on English: Bad Copywriters

Filed under: Copywriting,The War on English,Writing — Tei @ 3:01 am

I have seen the apocalypse, and it comes with a dangling gerund.

They’re EVERYWHERE. They’re not only copywriters, they’re PR experts and marketing professionals. People whose business, theoretically, is the creation and sale of effective, enticing communication. Somehow, inexplicably, an absurd number of these people seem to be unable to form a sentence with all its nouns and verbs matching up. For those of you figuring out how to do this, it goes in pairs, people. Like Noah’s ark. And line dancing.

Where do they come from?

I know at least one client who hired a marketing service to make up some – wait for it – marketing materials. Yes. I KNOW. It shocked me, too, but it doesn’t stop there. These people created some of the most painful, hair-raising, excruciating copy I personally have ever read. It was somehow humiliating to even be seen looking at it. Like watching Queer as Folk with your grandmother. They mixed second and third person without SHAME, people. Like so:

“One won’t believe how much you’re going to love this!”

It was horrible to behold. And it went on and on. Page after page. I’ve seen copy that would make your fingernails start to grow inward to try to avoid making contact with the print on the page. I’ve seen copy that third-grade English teachers would point to as a cautionary tale to all those students who refuse to learn ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’, after which the students would rush, feverish with fear, to their dictionaries. I’ve seen copy that makes me, personally, want to blow my brains out, and I want to know why.

How do they survive?

Darwin, bless his heart, tells us that the strong survive and the weak die out. Now, the strong have certainly survived, but why haven’t we EATEN the weak long ago? Why are they still out there, producing their terrible copy, day after day? Who is feeding the beast?

I have a partial answer, but not one that fully satisfies me. However – some of them have learned camouflage. The client referenced above was suckered into paying for a marketing package without viewing samples of the marketing company’s work. She paid for the package and then she felt too guilty to demand her money back. That’s right. The bad copywriters are surviving by preying on the unsuspecting clients. New clients, baby clients, clients who don’t know better. They are eating the young.

There must be more to this. They must have a secret weapon. We have to find it and destroy it before they start writing scripts in Hollywood. YES. It gets worse than the Star Wars I-III trilogy. It’s almost too horrible to contemplate.

How do we kill them?

Damned if I know, Johnson. Try to warn as many clients as you can. Tell them to watch out for the warning signs. Tell them, by all that is holy, to look at a portfolio, to ask to see a writing sample, to get one shred of proof this person can produce passable English. Only by educating the populace can we stop the scourge.

Don’t they have any redeeming qualities?

Well, yes. Sort of. Once a bad copywriter has produced copy of a hideous nature, it’s a fairly easy job to produce better copy. I wouldn’t call it a challenge, but it’s a low bar. If you can clear that bar with a foot to spare, you’ve just become pretty impressive to your client, and that’s worth while.

The down side is that your client might not have any money to repair the problem now that the bad copywriter has cleaned them out. They might be stuck, desperately looking for someone to save them, but to no avail. Take pity on them, the poor bastards. Give them a preposition or two. Move an apostrophe. A little kindness is all I’m asking for. Don’t let the scourge win.

What’s your deal, dude?

They make my head hurt. No, literally. I have a microchip in there inserted by the Grand Society for the Preservation of Grammar and Sanity, and it zings me every time I see someone say ‘breath’ when they mean ‘breathe’. I see that, and I get half a taser shot worth of lightning. For the love of JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES, PEOPLE! You BREATHE air. You stop to catch your BREATH. They are pronounced differently, and they mean different things. WHAT MORE CAN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE DO FOR YOU?

Subscribe. Or the GSPGS will zap me again. Help!



  1. Oh, Tei,

    Not for golf or disembodied arms or pub drink do I come here.

    Dear woman, I come here for this. My evening is complete.

    I LOVE when you go totally stickler-berserk.

    I love a woman who has no fear of making her lede involve the word “gerund.”

    Most, most of all, I love that you know the difference between breath and breathe. That means there’s at least a pair of us, and one of us is out for blood. You go, fiery lady.

    Beware: those evil copywriters are perpetuating the indifference, by sneaking their horrific messages out into the public, lulling them into believing that a preposition is okay to end a sentence with. 🙂

    Once the offenses creep in to daily language, people look at you blankly when you gag and fall over at the sight of “Breakfast Special’s” and “Their going to the show tonight,” and a dozen other things I’ve seen just in the last week.

    LOL LOL LOL. Well-written.



    Comment by Kelly — May 23, 2008 @ 4:55 am | Reply

  2. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. If you are marketing to people who ain’t got no idea how to formify sentencial words and paragraphs themselves (yeah, I know that hurts, sorry), maybe the crap still draws them in.

    “Formify”. Coming from a President near you. Leading a nation to creative word formification and expensive wars. A mind really is a terrible thing not to have. We shoulda listened then.

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — May 23, 2008 @ 9:37 am | Reply

  3. Yes, yes, YES! (I’ll have what she’s having.)

    Sadly, the grade 3 teachers don’t know shit anymore, either. I freak out when I see one friend’s English; he writes like a grade 3er! He says it doesn’t matter because he teaches damn good phys. ed. (GAK!!) When teachers are like this, I am embarrassed for them. And these people are educating our future! (Where’s my paper bag?!)

    In my experience, people also hire bad copywriters because they simply don’t know any better (the clients, I mean). They don’t have a good command of English themselves (one reason they hired outside in the first place), and therefore can’t recognize it when it’s atrocious. I have a friend like this. He owns a marketing and branding co. (the business name has Communications in it, which to me indicates a vital need for good writing), and his copywriter/editor sucks. Her own bio on one of his proposals told me so, so I told him. He says he wouldn’t ever have known (this is a guy who has trouble with apostrophes), and he keeps her because she has valuable contacts and knowledge of the field that I don’t have. I told him to for God’s sake let me at least edit her shit. This has happened several times. Then money comes up and we have to let it go so we can stay friends. I take a few deep breaths. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. Very slowly. I smile and grit my teeth. This is what we’re dealing with.

    Comment by steph — May 23, 2008 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

  4. Tei

    I was worried there for a while, when you talked about the microchip. Mabye it was the one they use at the Widget Factory where I work, to turn people into MANAGERS.

    But I’m relieved to see it’s only the English Grammar Chip. That’s okay, then…

    Comment by Friar — May 23, 2008 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  5. Kelly: Oh, there will be more. We will discuss the apostrophes AT LENGTH.

    Tony: The crap may still drag in the masses, but most of us need at least one big-bucks client, and that client generally has a fairly good education, and looks down at those who do not. I’m going for quality clients, and I’m going to make my non-quality clients at least SOUND like quality clients on paper, because that’s what they hired me for.

    steph: That’s true, the baby clients. Poor things.

    Friar: Yes, yes. It’s a perfectly benign chip that electroshocks me. Thanks for your concern.

    Comment by Tei — May 23, 2008 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  6. @Tei

    I must admit, I will have the occasional typo and grammar mistake in my blog.

    But this is more out of laziness, rather than ignorance of proper grammar rules.

    My problem is I type faster than I think. Yes, I WILL spell check and double check and triple check my sentences. But there are only so many times I can do this before I go crazy.

    (Not to mention the spellchecker on WordPress really SUCKS…it misses a lot of mistakes!)

    In my defense, I write nit-picky bureacratic procedures and technical documents 37.5 hours a week, where every sentence is checked and double-checked and triple-checked. And then checked again.

    So when I blog on my down-time, I deliberately relax.

    If I was trying to freelance for a living, I’d be a bit more careful about how I presented my blog to the world. But since the whole point of this is FUN….if I have a few mistakes…so be it.

    Please don’t hate me ,Tei (??) 🙂

    Comment by Friar — May 23, 2008 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  7. Friar: I love you unabashedly, and I don’t care what the old cranks say. Typos are fine. Seriously. Fine. It’s DELIBERATE BAD COPY, someone who actually sat down and said, “Why, this sentence flows beautifully! Stellar! We’ll send it to every media outlet in the state!” Those are the people against whom the war is waged.

    We don’t take away points for speedy fingers, or speedy thought processes. We commend them, in fact. We’ll get you a medal or something.

    And see, I’m glad your technical writing gets quadruple-checked. That’s fucking fantastic. Awesome. That is as it should be. But if, after the fourth person checks it, there is still a sentence combining second and third persons, I will die on the spot. Of shame. And extraordinary volts of electricity.

    Comment by Tei — May 23, 2008 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  8. Tei: I hate to correct you in your own pub, but you’ve made an egregious error. “One won’t believe how much ‘your’ going to love this!” You see, I know that you didn’t mean to indicate that “you are going”. You actually meant that the going somehow belongs to you. Right?!

    Sorry, misuse of the apostrophe is one of my big peeves. My comment was in my head before I read Kelly/Tei’s response to Kelly. My internal recycle bin is running out of room so I had to share.

    Tony: I tend to disagree. It’s not that people no longer have minds; they just need to use them. Folks need to realize that software is a tool, and not a smart tool. The absence of little green or red squigglies does not mean that a sentence is correct as written. Nor does squiggly presence necessarily indicate wrongness. It is a machine! It doesn’t know everything! One must edit; mustn’t one (or should that be a comma?).

    Steph, Tei: What about the clients who’ve “progressed” from baby to terrible twos. There are those who like the way “their” text reads, no matter how you try to convince them otherwise. I’ve even made the changes that needed to be made, thinking that once the client saw it he would realize that I was right (yeah, yeah, I know…). The test site went up and the web designer called me later and mentioned in conversation that the client had just called him and requested edits to the text. He had it changed back to his way. I mean, what nerve! Just because it was his web site and all….

    Comment by April — May 23, 2008 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  9. I’m torn on this issue, but not evenly. For the most part, this kind of stuff makes me grit my teeth because it is almost physically painful to read. But there’s a tiny part of me that appreciates it.

    I know I’m not the greatest copywriter in the world, but I have solid grasp of the rules of grammar and can put stuff together that’s correct. That is, I might not know what it’s called, but I know whether or not it’s used correctly.

    The awful writing I see and that I know somebody paid for reminds me that I am, in fact, worth hiring and worth being paid what I charge.

    Someone has to be at the base of the pyramid and I’m always glad to be reminded that the someone isn’t me.

    Comment by Matt Tuley — May 23, 2008 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

  10. April: Well, welcome to the pub. I do believe your new here.

    Oh. My. Gods. It hurt just to WRITE that. As a JOKE. There are lengths to which I cannot go for funny, and that is ONE OF THEM.

    In the copywriter in question’s defense, s/he did not seem to have the homophonic trouble so much as a painfully awkward style of prose and an unfortunate problem with dropping off to sleep mid-sentence, only to awaken and finish the sentence with whatever piece of dream-induced fantasmagora had held on from the ride through the subconscious. Nary a your/you’re problem did I see. Though they did use the phrase ‘pretty in pink’ . WITH the quotation marks around it.

    As for clients who insist that their bad copy is correct, I have them shot.

    Matt: True. This is kind of what I was saying with the low-bar thing. But it pains me that the client paid for it in the first place, and that now the budget had to be adjusted to pay ME.

    Comment by Tei — May 23, 2008 @ 9:43 pm | Reply

  11. Oh, I know, and my teeth grind just as much as Tei’s. Maybe more.

    But I still wonder: when I see a stupidly crafted sign, I groan and have a diminished opinion of the responsible party. But since most of the world seems to be ignorant and uncaring, perhaps it really doesn’t matter. Will the store lose my business because they exhort me not to “loose money” shopping elsewhere or tell me “Your gonna love our new product!” ? Probably not.. and probably most of the world won’t notice anyway.

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — May 23, 2008 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

  12. Tei: Yep, I’m knew hear (but I’ve been lurking just a little :^)). Thanks for the welcome. Laphroig, please. No ice.

    I stand corrected in my correction. I totally forgot that you were actually quoting someone, not making it up. In my defense, I’m too cold to think. I’ll come back after I’ve got my heavier jacket (the one I’m wearing isn’t cutting it) and fuzzy socks. Maybe I’ll make more sense.

    Do you have those clients shot on the spot, or after the check clears? I’m also curious about the shooting in other respects. Do you hire someone? You have them shot? Not beheaded or disemboweled? Is the sword only a defensive weapon, then?

    Comment by April — May 23, 2008 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

  13. @Tony: I guess it depends on your perspective because — GAK!! — the store would totally lose business from me. I know others I respect have said that content matters most, but I personally won’t bother with a website that has poorly written content. (I also absolutely look at design and judge books by their covers.) Nothing much is so original that I can’t find the same content written better elsewhere! Egg’s may still be eggs, but I’d rather buy them from someone who knows they’re plural and not possessive. The experience is ruined for me otherwise. I know it’s quirky, but that’s really the way I roll. As an editor, it’s my innate nature to care, very much so. Perhaps even obsessively so. It’s my job to care. I get really sad when people say who’s going to notice anyway. It’s that kind of thinking that puts me out of a career! I’d like to think that they don’t consciously notice, perhaps, but subconsciously well-written text is easier on them and affects them in more powerful ways. Again, it’s personal so I don’t expect to convince anyone, but to me a great command of English says much about a person, as does a poor one.

    Comment by steph — May 24, 2008 @ 3:46 am | Reply

  14. Just found your site via IttyBiz. I love the curse-slinging, take-no-shit style of both blogs.

    Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think including the word ‘fuck’ in a post automatically makes it edgy or worthwhile. But you clearly know what you are talking about, and aren’t afraid to say it with attitude.

    You talk how I talk in real life, when I am not being all writerly, clean and proper.

    Surprised, delighted and subscribed.

    And on the subject of bad copy… there is a ‘senior’ person at my cubicle job who has yet to grasp the difference between a plural and a possessive, and who doesn’t see why it matters either way. She does not claim to be a writer, but she is (allegedly) a professional with post-graduate qualifications in humanities. Every time I have to edit her work it is like fingernails down a blackboard. I wish I could fly you out to Australia to go ‘stickler-berserk’ (thanks Kelly) in her face. I’ll start a fund now.

    Comment by Rebecca — May 24, 2008 @ 3:57 am | Reply

  15. “But since most of the world seems to be ignorant and uncaring, perhaps it really doesn’t matter.”

    That’s precisely why it does matter, oh so much! Why let the ignorant and uncaring decide what matters or doesn’t because they are the majority? In my view, that’s the issue with society: wrong thinking. Others would agree with me: that’s why there’s a gazillion life coaches out there getting filthy rich. Ignorant and uncaring is a problem, and problems need solutions rather than to be left running rampant. It’s basically why businesses exist: to offer quality solutions to problems people have. Not only can great copywriters get across what the clients want to say, but also they can do it so that it increases business. Good copyeditors do the same, and polish what exists to make the authors credible and professional. So then good writing does matter, very much.

    Those who know good writing appreciate it; those who don’t simply need to find out what they’re missing. I’d like to think grammatically challenged people can be educated rather than left to get by on ignorance, that they can learn to take pride in speaking and writing correctly, even if only to come across as intelligent, but especially because communication is what makes the world go round. It’s powerful in general, but so much more powerful when beautifully wrought. Those who can’t communicate well are often frustrated. Their message is garbled, they’re misunderstood, they’re not understood at all. They’re ignored, thought to be unprofessional, less intelligent, even, or worse. If I (gently) coached someone, especially a client, on the proper use of the apostrophe, I doubt very much he or she would rebel and insist on using it incorrectly. And that’s how it begins: changing the world one comma, apostrophe, set of quotation marks…at a time. (For the record, I hate that grossly overused slogan: doing something one whatever at a time. GRRR! But it worked here.)

    Comment by steph — May 24, 2008 @ 4:25 am | Reply

  16. I know, I know, I know 🙂


    It is also important to understand that words and conventions change. Spoken words slip toward economies of pronunciation, meanings can flip upside down.. it’s all very slippery. It’s quite possible that in a hundred years time, there may be no distinction between “its” and “it’s” and “you’re” may be quite properly contracted as “your” – there is ample precedent for this sort of change and of course it comes from that old “common usage. When the “unprofessional and unintelligent” deploy their usage sufficiently, that usage becomes professional and correct.

    Yes, we should fight the good fight. Rail against diminishing of meaning, slurring of speech and all that. But accept that ultimately language and convention will do as it wishes. Beat the ocean with chains, curse at it with all the vehemence you can muster, yet still the tide rolls in..

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — May 24, 2008 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  17. BTW, two oft used phrases that make me wince:

    “Try and do something”

    You could try and succeed, or try to do, but “try and do” irritates me.

    “Alleged robbers” when the perpetrators are not yet identified. The robbery might be alleged, but at this point the robbers are unknown. not alleged.

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — May 24, 2008 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  18. Tei

    Yep, it IS good that my writing at work gets checked and quadruple-checked. But sometimes we border on the verge of insanity.

    I once had to write a 2500 word document…and the manager wanted ELEVEN reviewers.

    This wasn’t a multimillion dollar contract I was writing…this was NOT rocket science.

    And of course, everyone had to add their two cents. And all the review comments didnt’ come back at once, they spread out over weeks. And they often conflicted.

    My God..instead of looking at the document for content and grammar, some nano-managing knobs obsessed over the stupidest details (like where the microscopic 4-point header should be placed).

    THIS is where the Friar LOSES IT!!! (Hence, I rebel a little and slack off with the spelling and grammar on my own blog).

    Glad you understand. I would take that medal (anytime). I’ve probably already earned it for not strangling some co-workers.

    Comment by Friar — May 25, 2008 @ 4:14 am | Reply

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