Rules of English there to be broken
The Edit Part X
Continuing The Edit, our guide to modern communications with part two of our manifesto on good writing.
We believe the way businesses communicate must change fundamentally. New channels, time pressure and cultural shifts demand a smarter way of writing – concise, clear and less formal, but no less intelligent.
In our last post, we discussed some ways of making sure your message is well communicated. Here are three more pieces of advice for making your writing clear.
1. Know the rules, respect conventions
Most “rules” of English are nothing of the sort. Rather, they are conventions, often arbitrarily imposed, sometimes through snobbery and a desire to sound superior. If something sounds right, it probably is. Saying you cannot end a sentence with a preposition is something up with which we will not put.
You cannot, it is said, open a sentence with a conjunction. But a word’s grammatical function depends on how it is used and it is not preordained. In the previous sentence, “and” is a conjunction because it joins the two halves together; “but” is used for emphasis, not for joining, so it is not a conjunction.
In English, unlike Latin, the infinitive is not a single word, so “splitting” it is fine. It just sounds better to write “to boldly go” than “boldly to go” or “to go boldly”.
But remember that some audiences may take a different view of “correct” English and it is a mark of respect to them to stick to these conventions unless you have good reason not to. The most important person in any piece of writing, after all, is the reader.
2. Avoid jargon except when you need it
There are two types of jargon: the exclusive and the inclusive. Shun the former wherever possible, embrace the latter. Medics talk about “lacerations and contusions” rather than “cuts and bruises” to exclude the rest of us.
Here is a quote from a digital agency: “Wireframing is a way to design a website service at the structural level. A wireframe is commonly used to lay out content and functionality on a page which takes into account user needs and user journeys.”
Clear? There’s more: “The aim of a wireframe is to provide a visual understanding of a page ... to get stakeholder and project team approval before the creative phase gets under way.”
You’ll find “wireframing” usually involves drawing little boxes round groups of words, but that wouldn’t justify the fees.
We could also live without blockchain “ecosystems” and liquid credit “universes” – they, too, are just ways to make the writer seem clever.
But jargon does have its uses. Years ago, a Highbrook person used to write a Sunday football round-up for a local paper. The aim was to make pub team players feel as if their games were treated just the same as Arsenal’s and Man United’s (and to get them to buy the paper).
One week when that person was away, a stand-in who didn’t follow football as closely, did the job. Their first sentence read: “Six kicks in the right direction put Jarvis Brook first in the club listings...” Retranslate this into the right jargon and you get “Six shots on target put Jarvis Brook top of the league...”
That is inclusive jargon that reassures readers they are in the safe hands of someone who shares their knowledge and interests.
3. Steal judiciously
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in want of a good opening can find one in the classics. Or to put it another way: talent borrows, genius steals. To us, the first of those borrowings has been dulled by overuse. The second is at least slightly fresher. So whether you are borrowing or stealing from the greats, do it with originality.
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell laid down six rules for good writing. The most important of them is the final one: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”