The 4 Things That Make Language Really, Really Complicated… and What It Means for Marketers

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Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged contains some 470,000 individual entries. This number only considers root and base words and doesn’t account for the slang terms, colloquialisms, emoji, or other linguistic devices which have become a key part of human written communication.

Now add to this the fact that there are also 12 tenses in English – the (get ready for it) simple present, simple past, and simple future… the past progressive, present progressive, and future progressive… <takes a breath>… the present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect… and who could forget the present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive, and the future perfect progressive…

You get the point. It’s complicated.

The complexity, however, goes FAR beyond the relatively simple matter of individual word selection. When you think about it, language is quite fascinating. Or is it captivating? Compelling, engrossing, intriguing, or riveting? Maybe it’s more beguiling, or enthralling, or mesmerizing. The choice is yours – and your choice will affect how people interpret what you write.

Linguistics has four main branches – syntax, phonology & phonetics, morphology, and semantics & pragmatics. Each of these branches has its part to play when it’s time to write your next email… and will affect your response rates, one way or the other.

1. Syntax

Syntax looks at how words are put together to form constituents (such as phrases or clauses) and how the subsequent ordering of those constituents contributes to meaning.

But: syntax does more than just make a piece of copy make sense. For example, in 2004, global sportswear giant Adidas built an entire slogan and campaign around rearranging the words “Nothing is impossible” to read “Impossible is nothing” to great critical acclaim… and more importantly, a significant jump in sales.

2. Phonology and phonetics

Phonetics deals with the physics and acoustics of speech sounds produced by humans. Phonology is all about the abstract categories speech sounds fall under and how these categories relate to one another.

Confused? Think of it this way: phonetics is the exact measurement of how a word sounds – like how you can say “It’s 85 degrees Fahrenheit with 75% humidity”. It’s exact and measurable. Conversely, phonology is a word’s abstract categorization – like how you’d say “It’s really bloody hot and muggy outside today!” Phonetics would say a sound is articulated at the alveolar ridge, with no vocal fold vibration, at a frequency of 4000 Hz. Phonology would say it’s a “t”.

Remember: if the copy you’re writing doesn’t sound good, it won’t read well. And if it doesn’t read well, it won’t perform well.

3. Morphology

Morphology is concerned with individual words and how they are formed, whether it’s by adding prefixes or suffixes to a stem, by combining two words, or by some other means.

It may seem obvious, but choosing the right words – and the right combinations of words – can have a significant impact on how your brand and its marketing are perceived. Ask yourself: would sports megabrand Nike have been as successful if they had suggested you “Just get it done” rather than “Just do it”? Nope.

Every bit of copy your brand transmits to consumers, from the global slogan to the humble email subject line, is a branding opportunity. Those touchpoints add up to something much more powerful than the sum of its parts: brand perception.

4. Semantics and pragmatics

Semantics is the study of the relation between linguistic expressions and their meanings. Pragmatics is the study of how context contributes to meaning.

Consider both of these perspectives when you look at a piece of text and you get that text’s “sentiment” – the meaning the text is trying to convey. How that meaning is interpreted by a reader will affect their emotional response to the text. It can mean the difference between “A diamond is forever” and “A diamond is a very hard, durable stone”.

Language is complicated.

The point is, modern human language is incredibly complex. It is an ever-evolving behemoth of information. Its meanings and interpretations can be impacted by numerous human factors as well, including context, tone, and intention. It’s all quite amazing if you think about it.

Such levels of linguistic complexity make it possible to say almost the same thing in millions of different ways. In some cases, even billions. When it comes to writing marketing copy, that matters. For enterprise brands, whose marketing messages reach audiences numbering in the tens of millions, it can matter to the tune of millions of dollars in revenue.

Before, your only option was to trust your gut or trust a copywriter. But there’s a better way. And that way is Phrasee – AI that optimizes your marketing language.

You’ll have a chance to learn more about language – and how Phrasee’s AI can help you conquer it – at Think Summit in a couple of weeks. See you there!

About the Author

Parry Malm, Co-founder and CEO at Phrasee

Parry is the CEO and co-founder of Phrasee. A leading expert on digital marketing, he also has an extensive background in computer science and commercializing artificial intelligence. In 2016, Parry was named Tech Entrepreneur of the year at the UK Business Awards, and Phrasee was recognized by CB Insights as 2017’s Most Innovative AI Company.