Monthly Archives: September 2013

The “who”/”whom” problem teaches a bigger writing lesson

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“Whom” is on the way out. Most people who concern themselves with the English language agree that this stilted-sounding word has been pretty much entirely supplanted by “who,” no matter how “who” is used.

So what? Almost nobody says “whom” in everyday speech and, increasingly, it’s giving way to “who” in everyday writing as well. Good riddance.

But, using a recently published comic strip that plays on the difference between “who” and “whom,” there’s a point to be made about how people can look foolish when they inadvertently use words incorrectly when they write.

The strip (“Prickly City” by Scott Stantis) features Kevin, the Lost Bunny of the Apocalypse, and his wife. In part, the dialogue goes this way:

Kevin’s wife: “This conversation is over, Kevin. I’m running for your senate seat, and you’re going to let me have it.”

Kevin: “Says who?”

Kevin’s wife: “Whom.”

Kevin: “What?”

Kevin’s wife: “Whom. Says whom.”

Unfortunately, Kevin’s version is right, and his wife’s is wrong, but that doesn’t seem to be part of the joke. The consequences are distraction for anyone who catches the error and a bump in the road to the punch line, which is in the next frame. The cartoon loses some of its effect.

This might seem like quibbling, but anything that distracts a reader from the point the writer is trying to make weakens the message. This is why grammar and language usage are important.

The upshot: “Who” and “whom” might not be a problem much longer, but there are plenty of other stumbling blocks in the world of the written word to trip over. A professional writer should recognize and be able to handle them. A good editor and proofreader can also help prevent embarrassment.

Addendum: Writers should also beware of silly grammar and usage rules, such as:

• Never end a sentence with a preposition

• Never start a sentence with a conjunction (and, or, but, etc.)

• Never split an infinitive (to do, to see, to go, etc.)

These rules aren’t really rules at all, more just hobby horses for the creatively impaired. They’re bunk.

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Why businesses need copywriters

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It might seem disingenuous for a copywriter to write about why copywriters are necessary to business, but bear with me a moment.

First, let’s define our term. By copywriter, I mean anyone who makes a living supporting businesses – both for-profit and not-for-profit – by developing the written content of print advertisements, videos, radio commercials, audio programs, on-line advertising, blogs, direct mail, etc. People who write short stories, novels, plays, fictional and documentary films and most other forms that fall into a more “artistic” category are not copywriters, nor are journalists. The lines aren’t always clear, but the separation is helpful. Sometimes, people do copywriting to make a living as they pursue their artistic projects.

In short, in most cases, businesses hire copywriters only to promote their business, not to develop a written product the businesses can sell.

So why do businesses need someone who has successfully worn the copywriter hat? I’ll approach the answer somewhat circuitously.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing the uniqueness of writing among the skills people develop. We came to the conclusion that writing stands alone in that many people who can’t do it well think they can do it well – or at least well enough to get by in promotional materials. To them, the writing needed to make a brochure, website, industrial video or any other promotional item work is nothing like the design skills necessary to make the item pretty. One is “information”; the other is something they can’t do themselves or hire someone to do merely because they don’t have the time to do it.

At the risk of burying the lead (or lede, if you prefer), businesses need copywriters because, just like good design, good writing helps sell. A well-designed paragraph can have as much punch as an eye-grabbing visual. A strong headline can draw potential customers as effectively as a stunning graphic. It takes both strong writing and powerful design to get the best results. This point applies to every communication that combines written and visual elements.

The upshot: If a business needs someone to design an ad or brochure or shoot a video (good videographers have strong design skills), chances are it also needs a good copywriter. It is unwise and unhelpful to short-change the words.

Addendum: Copywriters and designers work best when they work together and their skills are given equal weight.

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