‘But I learned in second-grade English …’

Time for a refresher course

As people who write advertising, we hear that a lot.

“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’.” Or, “It’s not a complete sentence unless it has a subject and a verb.” Or, “You should never use contractions in your writing.”

Well, all of those things are probably true. We do learn, early in our education, a series of “rules” of writing. When these conversations come up, we like to think about a kid named Dale.

It’s time to break a few rules

In his North Carolina high school, Dale undoubtedly was told those things in English class. He also took driver’s training, where he learned the “rules” that a beginning driver must learn: Signal a lane change. Stay at or under the speed limit. Allow one car length per 10 mph. Hands at 10 and 2.

In his 20s, young Dale started doing odd jobs around a race track. And the racing bug bit him. Retired since 2008, Dale Jarrett is still considered one of the top 10 all-time NASCAR drivers.

He didn’t get there by following the rules of the road he learned in driver’s ed. He followed the rules of the track.

If you think about it, Georges Seurat’s second-grade art teacher would probably have been horrified by the rule-breaking of pointillism. Considered one of the greatest works of English literature ever, James Joyce’s Ulysses would be nothing but red marks if judged by the standards of middle-school English composition. The boundary-breaking improvisation that defined be-bop would have been frowned upon by young Dizzy Gillespie’s music teachers at the Laurinburg Institute.

In our early school days, we learn rules for the “science” of writing. Sadly, this is as far as writing education goes for most people. Those who pursue careers in writing, however, go well beyond that basic training and study the “art” of writing – just as Gillespie studied the art of the trumpet, Seurat the art of visual composition and Jarrett the art of stock car driving.

And in that advanced study, we learn it’s okay to start a sentence – even a paragraph – with a conjunction. A “fragment?” It can be a sentence. Contractions aren’t forbidden.

So how far can I really bend the rules?

It’s not necessarily breaking rules. It’s having the skill and wisdom to know which rules can be bent, and by how much. It’s knowing what works, and, when appropriate, what wins.

In the marketing communications business, it’s a matter of playing by the rules of the track, rather than the rules of the road. On this particular track, the field is extremely crowded. The competition is fierce. The prize is your customer’s attention, interest and action. And the rules of the road probably won’t win them.

Good advertising writing takes skills that Miss Fussbudget couldn’t teach you in second grade. Because they take many years of practice to learn – after you’ve learned the basic rules first.

And when it comes to starting a sentence with a conjunction … you needn’t take our word for it. The first chapter of Genesis in the King James Bible – arguably the most “formal” of all English translations – consists of 34 sentences.

Thirty-two of them begin with “And.”

And if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for us.