Thursday, April 16, 2009

Get with the now!

I have a Thursday challenge to all you suits out there. I want you to spend the rest of the week without once using the verbs "receive", "obtain" or even "acquire". Instead, use "get".

Yes... "get", the bane of all snooty writers, and one of my favourite words:

"Buy one, get one free"
"Get bent!"
"Lets Get it On"
"Get me a beer, please"

I'm a career copywriter, and nothing bothers me more than people over-formalizing their language. The beauty of English is its simplicity. And yet prescriptive grammarians continue to tell people they won't sound smart if they use simple language. Bullcrap.

Smart communicators understand their audience, and speak in a way that is relevant and persuasive to them. If you're writing an essay in university, you have to read your prof's generation and attitude as much as you read the published styleguide. When you write a cover letter for a job application, you have to read the style of the company you're trying to appeal to. (Believe me, I've lost interest in a lot of copywriter resumes after seeing one too many "leverage"s or "in order to"s in their career objectives.) And when you write for John and Jane Q. Public, you need to speak to them conversationally.

Seeing "Buy One, Receive One Free" in advertising copy or in-store signage always makes me cringe. I just assume it's the fault of people being conditioned by certain uptight high school English teachers or profs that there's only one proper way to write English. These are the same people who bemoan the degradation of the English language due to e-mail, Twitter and text messaging.

Me? I think it's great that people are enriching their vocabularies with new words and expressions. English is a descriptive language, not a strictly controlled one like French and many others. As long as we still manage a little bit of real verbal communication, English will evolve naturally as the world's conversational language. And the Grammar Nazis (offensive subtitles) will just have to get on with their lives.

Get it? Got it? Good.


  1. The fancy term for "grammar Nazi" is "prescriptive grammarian," FWIW. They're the butt of many jokes among real (descriptive) language scholars. As Winston Churchill once joked, :that is something up with which I shall not put."

  2. For the sake of sparking discussion here, I will disagree. Even in conversational writing like advertising there must be standards. While "get" is a perfectly valid verb, it can easily be overused, making it ineffective. Those who use "get" repeatedly in their writing are not pushing their creative abilities. The next time you see yourself using "get," ask yourself if it's really the BEST word to use. Broaden your vocabulary.

  3. I would counter that "overuse" does not make a plain word ineffective. Ad writing needs to be absorbed quickly, and using more florid or obscure synonyms just gets in the way.

    I agree about using the right word, though, at the right time. The whole point of having a large vocabulary is to be able to pull out a more nuanced word when one is really needed (rather than just showing it off at every opportunity). But in plain language copywriting, you want to avoid unnecessary interpretation... not to mention save precious ad space!

  4. Nothing is more precious than an original idea presented clearly. University professors (who are probably responsible for this whole synonym-a-thon) reward bafflegab every day, so it's no surprise people later adopt it into their everyday life. But whether it's ad copy or a PhD thesis, word clutter is an idea's worst enemy.

    P.S. Downfall videos might just be my favourite internet meme...