Really Break Grammar Rules on Websites: Part Two

by Kara Pernice on April 1, 2014

Summary: Deviating from old writing guidelines makes digital content seem very fresh!!

Last month's article Break Grammar Rules on Websites for Clarity provided 3 specific guidelines. Today's article provides 3 more guidelines, thus, the numbering in this article begins at 4.

This article was published as an April Fools' Day hoax, and does not contain real recommendations.

Break Rule #4: Avoid Using the Word Very

Third-grade English teachers gave the word very a very bad name with their assignments to write essays that include a particular number of words. Some pupils abused very in order to achieve the required word count in their homework. For example:

My summer vacation was very good. My very close family made the very long drive across the very beautiful and very, very varied United States. My father did most of the driving, very fast, which made us very, very anxious. But, overall it was a very, very, very good trip and summer vacation.

It’s unfortunate that today’s professional communicators avoid very because of this juvenile misuse of the word. Very is a helpful adjective and adverb, and it can quickly and easily magnify the meaning of so many verbs and nouns. We should use very very much more on our websites today.

Let’s consider an example on the Green Mountain Coffee website. The “Behind the Bean” passage uses no very’s:

Original content: Coffee is more than just something to drink. It connects us to each other, and to the rest of the world. We’re passionate about great coffee and we’re anxious to share that passion with you. So join us in this glance at the surprisingly rich and complex story of coffee — how and where it’s grown, the many ways it can be prepared, and the artistry involved along the way.

Our rewrite adding very: Coffee is very much more than just something to drink. It connects us to each other, and to the rest of the world. We’re very passionate about very great coffee and we’re very anxious to share that passion with you. So join us in this glance at the very surprisingly rich and very complex story of coffee — how and where it’s grown, the very many ways it can be prepared, and the artistry involved along the way.

Notice how in our rewrite the injection of very achieves the following 2 goals that the plain text did not:

  • demonstrates genuine emotion by adding very before passionate and anxious
  • reinforces just how multifaceted the story of coffee is by adding very before complex story of coffee

In another example, consider Pottery Barn’s product description for their “Scroll Tile Rug,” and how it could benefit from peppering very throughout.

Original content: Moroccan tile patterns were the inspiration for this hand-tufted wool rug. The allover scroll motif is tufted in creamy ivory over a solid ground for a versatile look that goes well with a variety of furnishings and decor.

  • Hand tufted of pure wool.
  • Yarn dyed for vibrant, lasting color.

Our rewrite adding very: Moroccan tile patterns were the inspiration for this very hand-tufted wool rug. The allover scroll motif is very tufted in very creamy ivory over a very solid ground for a very versatile look that goes very well with a variety of furnishings and decor.

  • Hand tufted of very pure wool.
  • Yarn dyed for very vibrant, very lasting color.

In the above case, the use of very has very positive impact because it answers the user’s likely questions before he even has the chance to ask them:

  • Just how “hand-tufted” is the wool rug?
  • What level of creamy is the ivory?
  • How solid is the ground?
  • How versatile is the look?
  • How vibrant is the color?
  • How lasting is the color?

The expressive answer to each of these questions is simple, descriptive, and the same: very.

Our recent research on e-commerce user experience found that big product photos are very helpful to users. Big words are also very appreciated.

As very adaptable and very eloquent very can be, do be somewhat disciplined in your use of the double very, as in, Very, very high HD quality. While the very, very can have unusually high impact, it can sometimes seem desperate to readers if overused.

Be especially careful using the triple very, as in, The New England winter of 2014 was very, very, very cold. Too many very's in a row can seem disingenuous and can even impact your site’s credibility. If you choose to employ the triple very, use it in no more than 2 instances on your site. And, consider building up to it by using the single very first, then the double very, and finally the triple very. For example, we could better write a passage on our own website by using multiple very’s:

Since 1998 Nielsen Norman Group has been a very leading voice in the user experience field: conducting very, very, very groundbreaking research, evaluating interfaces of all shapes and sizes, and guiding very, very critical design decisions to improve the bottom line.

The above example does pose a minor breach of the recommendation by introducing very, very, very before very, very; but you can see the powerful impact and why it was worth this deviation in this particular case.

A final guideline: while one very is good, 2 verys are very good, and 3 verys are very, very great, we recommend not using the sequence very, very, very, very, because our usability studies have shown that some users have difficulty keeping that many items in short-term memory while retaining some remaining cognitive capacity to also attend to your main message.

Break Rule #5: Use Exclamation Points Judiciously

Wordsmiths have baptized the exclamation point (!) a cheap attempt at forcing excitement upon readers. In the absence of actual exciting prose, writers tack on an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, as if to tell the reader “this is exciting,” or “be interested in this.”

Back in 2001 we had "avoid exclamation marks" as guideline #26 out of the 117 design guidelines for homepage usability. Normally it is true that human nature doesn't change much from one decade to the next and user experience guidelines therefore also don't change much over the years. However, exclamation points are clearly an exception to this finding! As one of our recent test users said about a site that had been updated to modern design through both infinite scrolling and extensive exclamation points: "You can really tell how much these dudes love their site! So much content! So many exclamation points!!"

The exclamation point is the most thrilling punctuation available! With this in mind, the recommendation today is to punch up your site’s content and use them copiously. Some of the reasons and user behaviors behind this recommendation include the following:

  • Users scan frequently and miss subtle enthusiasm in content. When scanning, people may fail to grasp the fervor embedded in the content itself. An exclamation point can tell users that the content is, indeed, very, very stimulating!
  • Eyetracking reveals that users are attracted to exclamation points. Our eyetracking research shows that one exclamation point may not attract much attention, mainly because alone it resembles the letter “I” or the number "1." But two exclamation points do attract attention!! And three exclamation points attract even more attention!!!
  • Gives the period a break! Readers get bored and sometimes even fatigued reading many sentences in a row that all end with periods. Too many periods can make the web writers and designers seem lazy and unimaginative!!! Injecting exclamation points, double exclamation points, and triple exclamation points shows that you earnestly attempted to provide the most helpful, interesting content!

As with the previous usability guideline recommending against the use of 4 verys, it's also best to avoid !!!! Three exclamation points give the best combination of high impact and low cognitive load!!! (The guideline against using 5 or 6 exclamation points is even stronger, due to findings from perceptual psychology discussed further in the course on The Human Mind and Usability: the time taken to count the number of exclamation points to discern the clearly crucial distinction between !!!!! and !!!!!! sadly adds too much interaction cost to an otherwise subtle design element.)

Break Rule #6: Avoid Using Chat Abbreviations in Website Content

Traditionally, web writers recommend using abbreviations judiciously and avoiding jargon. But today, more adults and even seniors are “talking text.” IOW, they understand text abbreviations commonly used in texts, chats, and emails!

Recalling the meaning of “texteviations” (not to be confused with textonyms) is another case of mobile usage influencing desktop users’ expectations and behavior.

ITA that some abbreviations can be confusing IRL. OTOH, they have their benefits b/c they:

  • decrease word count on the site
  • intensify a youthful tone of voice
  • are familiar to users, and thus increase their comfort level on the site and draw on knowledge that the users already have

Best of all: fewer words + shorter words = lower scores in a readability formula, making it laughably easy to comply with the rule to write at an 8th grade reading level to reach a broad consumer audience.

Grammar geeks may balk. AAR8 texteviations in your site’s content can make for a better user experience than using the spelled out words, particularly since we know that numerals enhance scannability.


TAFN. GA, LMK what you think! IOW I would <3 to hear your feedback!! TIA!!! Very EOM.

Gotcha, April Fool!

Share this article: Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Email