Ignorance in Marketing – Is Poor Grammar Making You Look Stupid?

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The scary thing about ignorance is that you don’t know you are ignorant about something until you are made aware of it. And at that point, not only do you realize you were ignorant, but now you are also ashamed and embarrassed, to make matters worse. While everyone is capable of making mistakes whether through ignorance or forgetfulness, I have found that there is no better way to learn something than through the humiliation of being caught in an error, no matter how inadvertent. While ignorance may be bliss, its ramifications are truly mortifying!

As marketing professionals, it is our job to mastermind brilliant ways to bring success to the clients we represent. A marketer’s tools include effective use of language, visuals and sounds, all of which should work together to create a memorable and powerful symbol of appeal.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, (should be “more easily said than done” but the original is an idiomatic expression and is acceptable in its cruder form). If a marketer suffers from a lack of knowledge about any of the components within his repertoire, the work he produces may suffer as well.

Grammatical errors seem to take predominance. Examples can be found both in written and spoken form, published and broadcast in news, commentary and advertising formats, as well as weather and traffic reports. No one seems immune these days and the more such errors proliferate through the media, the more the population seems to adopt them as proper form. Often these errors are difficult to trace, whether originating as gang-speak on the street or trickling down from the most reputable icons of our sources of cultural information.

One of the most prevalent of these errors involves the addition of the preposition “of” where it does not belong, as in “not too big ‘of’ a deal,” or “not too bad ‘of’ a ride,” which more correctly should be “not too big a deal” and “not too bad a ride.” I understand where the confusion comes from since it is correct to say “not too much of a problem.” Why is one correct and not the other? It is all based on whether the word before the word “of” is a noun or an adjective. If it is a noun, following it with the word “of” is correct. If it is an adjective, following it with the word “of” is incorrect. Here is a very helpful explanation from wiki.answers:

“The word ‘of’ only belongs with words like ‘much,’ so ‘too much of a problem’ would be correct, but ‘too big of a task’ should instead be ‘too big a task.’ This goes for most adjectives, for instance: ‘too blue a shirt’, ‘too tall a building’, ‘too deep an ocean’, etc.”

The word “much,” which can be an adjective, an adverb or a noun depending on the context, is used as a noun in this instance, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, unlike the words “big,” “blue,” “tall” and “deep” which are used as adjectives. A simple formula to apply for clarification could be:

Too (adjective) a (noun) or…

That (adjective) a (noun) or…

Quite (adjective) a (noun) or…

How (adjective) a (noun)…

…as in “too sassy an attitude” or “that high an elevation” or “quite boring a speech” or “how wonderful an occasion.” The consensus seems to be that interjection of the word “of” in this context seems to be indigenous to North America and is largely informal in use. If this is true, I predict that its current prevalence in language (particularly within the media), no matter how incorrect it may be, will eventually creep into our cultural lexicon to become the permanent rule as opposed to the exception – something I find disheartening after all the effort it takes to remember, understand and apply correct usage.

This reminds me of something my mother taught me many years ago which continues to make me feel like someone from a different planet when I still obey her today, though she’s been dead for more than twenty years. When the phone rings and I am asked, “Is Marilyn there?”, the proper response according to my mother and proper English usage is “This is she” or “I am she.” I am probably the only person on earth who feels compelled to reply in this way leaving the inquirer to think I am putting on airs to elevate my social status, when in fact I am only trying to avoid the guilt of motherly disobedience. The reason it is correct is that there must be agreement between “This” or “I” and “she,” all of which must be in the nominative case. If I were to say, “This is me” or “This is her,” the words “me” and “her” would be in the objective case and would not agree with the subject “This” in the nominative case. But I digress.

What really gets me is that when errors like this are so flagrantly repeated day after day, week after week, within radio traffic reports, for instance, no one of any authority makes an effort to correct them, comment about them, apologize for them or otherwise address them as incorrect. Am I the only one to notice these things?

And why is it important, anyway? Some people feel nitpicking about usage of the English language is pointless since the meaning is clear regardless of such minuscule aberrations. Anyone complaining about these seemingly archaic grammatical rules should “man up” and “get a life!” In today’s world, slang seems to be the universally acceptable format du jour.

Someone like me who is paid to write a wide variety of business marketing items such as letters of introduction, ad copy, website content, press releases, etc., must do so as professionally as possible which includes adhering to proper grammatical usage of the English language. To do anything less than that would be a disservice to my clients who hire me because they cannot do it themselves. Therefore, it is my responsibility to know the rules of syntax thoroughly to be able to defend whatever I write.

But more importantly, having command of the English language in its proper form differentiates a writer or a speaker from those who do not, elevating one’s skills to a more sophisticated level and defining one’s style as eloquent, articulate and expert. Absence of grammatical errors is not something which normally attracts any attention. But subliminally, it evokes respect for what is being presented as authoritative, trustworthy and believable. Interject even a typographical error and suddenly the source of the document is suspect as a charlatan!

I find that if using proper grammar makes you feel pretentious as per my phone retort example above, there is always another way to express oneself and such an exercise actually improves your skills as a writer or speaker since you are constantly challenging yourself to be the best you can be. For instance, instead of struggling with the horrendous “This is she” reply, why not just say, “This is Marilyn” or “I am Marilyn”? Better yet, identify yourself upon answering the phone so there is no need to beg the question.

Need more proof of ignorance run rampant? Among the huge numbers of errors which include misuse of such words as it’s/its, utilization of double negatives, and many others, here are a few examples of common usage issues I encounter frequently in the media:

Of all the accidents reviewed, none were considered serious. (WRONG!)

Of all the accidents reviewed, none was considered serious. (RIGHT!)

Why? Because none implies “not one” which is singular and must be followed by a verb which agrees.

What about use of the Latin abbreviations: i.e. and e.g.? What do they mean, and when and how do you use them? The Latin abbreviation i.e. literally translates as id est which means “that is,” or, “in other words.” The Latin abbreviation e.g. literally translates as exempli gratia, which means “for example.” Therefore, i.e. is used to specify exactly what you mean while e.g. is used to merely provide some examples of what you mean. A comma always follows either abbreviation.

The lecture focused on war, i.e., World War I and World War II.

Soldiers injured during war was part of the discussion, e.g., spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, etc.

Often in songwriting, grammatical errors occur for the sake of rhyme or rhythm and is apologetically referred to as poetic license. (One example from Jim Morrison and the Doors: “Till the stars fall from the sky, for you and I” This comes to mind because of a common error with objects of the preposition.

With confidentiality as a concern, the investment advisor revealed financial losses only to my wife and I. (WRONG!)

With confidentiality as a concern, the investment advisor revealed financial losses only to my wife and me. (RIGHT!)

In discussions between Bob and I, we agree there is only one correct investment strategy. (WRONG!)

In discussions between Bob and me, we agree there is only one correct investment strategy. (RIGHT!)

Why? Prepositions are followed by the objective case.

And errors pertaining to disagreement of singulars and plurals are extremely common:

Those kind of things. (WRONG!)

That kind of thing or those kinds of things! (RIGHT!)

Errors using the words Fewer and Less: The following are correct examples.

We need fewer problems and less strife in the world.

With fewer hours to work, we accomplish less.

Less milk, fewer bowls of cereal.

But “I want to pay less taxes” is incorrect. While the intention is to convey the idea that you want to pay less money toward your taxes, and the correct “I want to pay fewer taxes” does not truly communicate that meaning, the way to say it correctly could be:

“I want to pay less in tax.” Or, just rephrase completely to say, “I pay thousands in taxes and I want to pay less!”

Errors with the words “Amount of” and “Number of” These examples are correct:

She drank a large amount of milk with her cake.

She passed a great number of lakes on her trip.

A large amount of oil has spilled in the gulf.

Often an additional error occurs in these instances with lack of agreement of verbs with preceding subject (singular or plural)

A large number of fishermen have been impacted. (WRONG!)

A large number…HAS been impacted. (RIGHT!)

Let’s look at the word “lay” which is so commonly misused everywhere. Conversationally, professionally, musically. Ah, yes. Back to the musical violations. Bob Dylan leads the way with “Lay, Lady, Lay” followed closely by Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down, Sally”

In Bob’s case, unless he is referring to laying eggs and Lady is a chicken, he’s way off base. Eric doesn’t have a prayer. He’s just dead wrong, as they say.

How do I remember what is correct? I don’t always but I am not too proud to do some research… in fact, a lot of research. Even though I’ve always had a very good memory for these things, what I remember most is what sounds correct because of my upbringing. My mother was obsessed with teaching me proper English perhaps because her mother only spoke Hungarian. So she hammered exercises like the following into my young brain, day in and day out. Maybe it was her pet peeve but I thank her for her tedium today. Of all the things my parents gave me as a child, I would have to say that their efforts to expose me to proper use of the English language was their greatest gift of all!

Lie, Lay, Lain; Lay, Laid, Laid

I lie down today.

I lay down after supper last night.

I have lain down after eating quite a bit lately.

The dog has been lying there for hours! Lie down, Fido!

Think: recline.


I lay the book on the table.

I laid it on the table about an hour ago.

I have laid it on the table many times.

Just lay the book on the table, Melissa.

She is now laying the book on the table.

Think: put or place.

As a marketing professional, I have a natural interest in mainstream marketing. Lately, I have noticed a couple of grammatical infractions in radio advertising for extremely popular brands. Not that this is so uncommon, I just find it unfortunate because our culture, particularly the younger members of our population, mainline the media’s message through sound, often more than through print, ingesting such errors as acceptable forms of speech. While I can understand the use of less-than-perfect English to represent a fictitious character rather than a true person, (the way snarky Popeye had to eat “me spinach,” true to the sailor-man that he was), deliberately saying “This is one of them cases” when the word “those” could easily have sufficed makes no sense to me. Likewise, saying “It worked pretty good” instead of “…pretty well” may have been for the purpose of appealing to a more blue-collar market but hardly can be justified as responsible advertising if it is teaching our children to speak like street urchins.

Often clients complain if I add a hyphen where it belongs when they send me a slogan to use verbatim. I regard it as my duty to explain why I added the hyphen but give them the option of omitting it if that is their preference. After all, how many years did we listen to the defiantly improper, Madison-Avenue-produced branding: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”?

So, while it may be acceptable in some contexts to regard proper grammar flippantly, doing so on a professional level may result in a blow to your reputation, doubt about your expertise, and ultimately loss of business. If you compromise the language knowingly, that’s one thing. But if you do so out of ignorance, you do so at your own risk.

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