If someone wants to give you money then you should convince them you can actually do the job. Here are 4 ways linguistics will save your copy.

Lesson 1: Stop writing “can”

Company X can assist you with ___________________.

Does this sound familiar when you’re looking for a product or service? What about this on a cover letter from an applicant looking to get hired:

I can work well in a team or unsupervised.

Stop saying can! “Can” simply means you have the potential ability to. It doesn’t mean you will, it doesn’t mean you excel, and it doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else.

Uncertainty avoidance is when a cultural group avoids a level of uncertainty. Different cultural groups tolerate different levels of uncertainty or ambiguity, however when it comes to making a pitch — whether that be to make a sale, to set yourself apart as an authority figure, or to be employed — making yourself or your product unclear can really damage your chances of success.

Cultural uncertainty is one measurement from Hofstede’s cultural dimensions; 6 scales which cultural groups can be measured on (certain/uncertain, high/low power, individualism/collectivism, masculine/feminine, long term orientation/short term orientation, indulgent/restrained). Obviously shrinking a complex culture down into 6 scales is not representative of the individuals in that culture and can run the risk of overgeneralizing, but for things like copywriting, resume writing, and so on, it can be really useful to look at your audience on these scales and write according to what they want.

If someone wants to give you money then you should convince them you can actually do the job.

Lesson 2: Follow Grice’s Maxims

Not everyone likes Grice, but he has some good foundations for how to communicate.

  1. Quantity. Don’t talk (write) for too long or too short. For example, a 7 minute article on Medium is considered a good length. I personally don’t look at how long my articles are, but when I check my stats the magical 7 minutes seems to actually be true.
  2. Quality. Don’t talk shit, and remember to always back yourself up with facts.
  3. Relevance. Don’t go on tangents, and this one is fairly closely related to number 1.
  4. Manner. Avoid obscuring the point or purpose, be clear and not confusing.

Most miscommunications can be boiled down to one of these four things. When it comes to a landing page or the first chapter of your debut novel, your first impressions matter quite a lot so make sure what you say is lengthy enough to keep someones attention but don’t just keep writing words for the sake of writing, actually enjoyable to read, relevant to what the reader wants to know and doesn’t end with them asking “what the hell was that?”

Lesson 3: Use a thesaurus, please

I recently rewrote a client’s website copy. They paid the previous person who was a hobby blogger $100 for their entire website. They cut a lot of corners. For example, on just one page of the website;

They described the company’s services as “vital” to client’s success five times.

They wrote “we can” thirty five times.

They used hyphenated words inconsistently (e.g. frontend but then later front-end)

They listed what the company “specializes” in four times, for four different things.

They wrote “ensure” twelve times, and “make sure” another eight times.

The list goes on, I assure you. If I was a client looking at this company’s website and wondering whether or not I should contact them for their services, I would feel it was repetitive and boring, and way too ambiguous as to what they do well and what they say they “can” do. It would make me wonder why aren’t they more confident and proud if they’re claiming to have achieved so much? Needless to say, even though this client is actually a favourite of mine, if I judged them off the copy of their website I wouldn’t hire them.

Lesson 4: Keep your tenses consistent and learn what the perfect tense is (and how to use it correctly)

Back in the day, I used to tutor high school students in English. When they gave me an essay and I told them they had valid points but their writing was crap, the main reason was they used tenses inconsistently. By this I mean they would change between the past, present, and continuous tenses without realising.

An example of changing tenses would look something like this.

I walked to the car. Then I was putting my keys in the ignition. I am so excited to go to the party.

Without getting all grammar nerdy on you, if you do this over an extended period of time it just gives an incoherent feeling to the reader. You kind of get jerked around all over the place and it becomes a bit hard to follow. The lesson here is, go back over whatever you’ve written and make sure it’s flowing nicely and you’re using tense consistently. There are some times when it’s ok to change tense, though this is mostly in fiction. For example:

“I thought to myself ‘I am in love’”.

Ok, now for something you probably didn’t learn in school. The perfect tense. You can spot when someone is using the perfect tense when they say the word “have”, but not in the ownership sense like as in “I have a laptop”.

Example:

have gone to the gym three times this week

It goes like this — have + past tense verb* + rest of your sentence.

Without the perfect “have” you will use a different past tense form of your verb, i.e. “I went to the gym”, watch out for this, it’s where a lot of people learning English as a foreign language have difficulty (I don’t blame them).

If you’re writing using the perfect tense, for god’s sake keep it consistent and be aware of what you’re doing.

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