We’re an opinionated bunch, here at The Writer. If you’ve ever worked with us, you’ll know we’ve got no time for things like buzzwords, or boring, formal writing.
But we know we’re in a bubble. We think about words all day, every day. On the plus side, that means we know our stuff. But on the minus, there’s always a danger that we’ll lose touch with how real people think.
So we teamed up with Nielsen and two well-known FMCG brands, let’s call them Soothe and Sport, to put our theories to the test.
We got our hands on one product concept each for Soothe and Sport. They’d already run the concepts through testing and both had got the worst possible result: ‘probable failure’.
We rewrote them both in three ways: one neutral, one in the Soothe tone of voice, one in the Sport tone of voice.
We wanted to see if good writing could improve a product concept’s performance in testing. And we also had a hunch that Soothe customers would prefer the Soothe tone of voice, and Sport customers would prefer the Sport tone of voice.
What we found
Good writing makes a disproportionately big difference. Our best-performing concept doubled the overall result of the previous version. (And each concept took us about 20 minutes to rewrite.)
Loyal customers prefer writing that’s in the brand’s tone of voice. The concept in the Soothe tone of voice was most popular with Soothe buyers.
Clear writing beats concise writing. Our best-performing concept was actually a little longer than the original. And a version we chopped right down ended up failing the clarity part of the test.
Metaphor works. As part of the testing, people had to click anything they particularly liked. The phrase that got the most love was this: The clay inside acts like a sponge.
People need to know what ingredients are for. The original Soothe concept talked about moisturising cream and vitamin B3, but left it there. In our rewrites, we gave the benefits attached to those ingredients, and took the result for the ‘credibility’ scale from bottom marks to top marks.
You can explain away people’s worries. The Sport product contains clay. After the original test, people were worried it would stain their clothes and clog their pores. In our versions, we named those worries and explained why they were unfounded. Nobody had any worries about the clay.
We talk to a lot of our big FMCG clients about functional and emotional benefits.
Functional benefits tell you what a product does for you. This deodorant stops you sweating. This bleach kills bacteria.
Emotional benefits tell you how a product makes you feel. So if the deodorant stops you sweating, you’ll feel more comfortable. Using the bleach to kill bacteria makes you feel reassured that you won’t get sick.
Brands themselves have emotional benefits too. You might buy a Dove deodorant because Dove stands for beauty and purity. You might buy a Domestos bleach because Domestos stands for power and trust.
This is a phenomenon luxury brands depend on. The liquid in a bottle of Chanel perfume isn’t worth £80, but the name on the side of the bottle is. Buying Chanel tells the world you’re the sort of person who buys Chanel, which in many circles is a positive association.
So what about food?
Basic foods do have functional benefits. Vegetables can help you avoid getting ill. The proteins in meat help your body repair itself. But when you get down to food that’s more for pleasure than health, the picture gets less clear.
Let’s take ice cream as an example. It tastes nice, and that’s basically why it exists. So how do you convince people that yours tastes nicer than all the other tubs on the shelf?
There are five ways:
1. Focus on provenance
Everyone sells vanilla. So how do you make sure they choose your vanilla? Say where it’s from. Madagascan vanilla, Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla.
Some ingredients, like mint, grow just about everywhere. So there’s less power in stating the country of origin. In those cases, just zoom in. Does the mint grow on a mountain-side? Near a stream? In volcanic soil? Paint a picture for your customers.
2. Focus on process
Maybe you pick the mint by hand, or you use a special brush to clean off the dirt, or you crush it in an industrial-sized pestle and mortar to bring out the flavour. Whatever you do, if it helps improve the product then people will want to know about it.
3. Tell stories
If you have processes that don’t improve the product but have their own unique charm, shout about those too. I went on a tour of the Noilly Prat distillery in the south of France recently and they told us about the stirrer. All the other vermouth brands have machinery that stirs all their barrels simultaneously, but at Noilly Prat there’s a man with a paddle who goes from barrel to barrel stirring by hand. It’s more expensive, slower and less effective, but it’s charming. It tells you they care.
Some brands even invent processes just so they can add to their story. Again, a Noilly Prat example: during the 19th century, casks of wine were taken across the ocean on the open decks of ships, exposed to the elements. Today, Noilly Prat has a walled outdoor area at the distillery called L’Enclos where the barrels of wine mature through sun, rain and snow. It sounds great and it’s intriguing. So who cares if it doesn’t actually make any difference?
4. Tantalise the senses
Which makes you hungrier?
Delicious fudge ice cream or Silky ice cream with flaky fudge.
The magic is in the adjectives. Delicious tells you how I feel about it. That’s fine if you know me and trust my judgement, but if I’m a big brand describing my own product you’d be right to be cynical.
What makes it delicious is going to be the way it tantalises the senses. The way it looks, feels, tastes, smells or (rarely) sounds. So describe that instead. In this case, we’ve gone with the ‘feel’ words silky and flaky.
5. Break the norms
People are so used to seeing certain words and phrases that they don’t even notice them anymore. Even Madagascan vanilla probably falls into that category. So shake it up. Say vanilla from Madagascar at the very least, or vanilla from Melaky in northwestern Madagascar.
And that’s it. Now, I think we all deserve a flake.
I’ve just been listening to a debate on the radio about Gareth Southgate’s approach to managing England. The thrust of it was that his tendency to tinker with his tactics based on who he’s up against is either: a) brilliantly pragmatic, or b) the end of the world as we know it.
At the heart of the debate there seemed to be a tension between flexibility and identity. As in, if you’ve got one, you can’t have the other.
I think those clever football pundits have inadvertently hit on one of the big debates in tone of voice circles. When we’re working on a tone of voice, we’re often asked to build in some flex. And we’re very happy to do that, but there’s a drawback. A flexible tone of voice is an inconsistent tone of voice. And an inconsistent tone of voice isn’t really a tone of voice at all. It’s just some writing guidelines.
So before you put the F-word in your brief, ask yourself what’s most important to you: identity or flexibility?
I was watching The Big Short a few days ago when a thought struck me.
If you haven’t seen it, the film is set just before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007, and one of its major themes is the tendency of the banking industry to overcomplicate simple concepts. The filmmakers’ take on it was that bankers were using complex language to hide some of their less wholesome practices, but I think there’s something else at work too.
I think business worships complexity.
The people who do the most complicated jobs are the most revered. So if your job is comparatively straightforward, the natural reaction is to make it sound complicated. (This is why there are ‘sandwich technicians’ at Subway.) It seems to me that there’s an underlying rule here: if you can explain it, it’s not complicated enough.
This is a stupid and dangerous rule
But it’s also the rule that means people like me have a job. So the worst bit is that a lot of people like me, by which I mean writers, seem to abide by the rule themselves.
Writers aren’t ‘writers’ anymore. They’re ‘content strategists’ or ‘content creators’. Likewise writing isn’t ‘writing’, it’s ‘authoring’. And words aren’t ‘words’, they’re ‘content’ or ‘copy’.
The hypocrisy makes my blood boil. As writers it’s our job to make sense of the complexity, not add to it.
So can we stop it now, please?
A lot of people have been getting worked up about commentators using 'medal' as a verb during the Olympics.
Everybody calm down. The English language is packed to the rafters with verbs that didn’t start out as verbs. Like these:
Languages evolve, and there’s nothing we can (or should) do about it.
I’m in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia. I’ve never, ever been this vigilant. At every turn I expect a redback, taipan or crocodile to spring out and sink its teeth into my face.
In my mind, every plant I accidentally brush is a gympie-gympie; a tree with a sting that can leave you in agony for years. Every rustle in the undergrowth is a cassowary; a huge bird with a dagger-like nail on its foot that’s been known to sever carotids.
In the end, the closest I get to danger is a golden orb spider that’s set up home in a café. And as any half-decent arachnologist will tell you, the golden orb spider is about as cuddly as it gets in Queensland.
But it got me thinking. With so many dangerous animals and plants, surely Australia’s warning signs represent the pinnacle of warning sign achievement?
Let’s see. Here are three lessons from three signs.
Lesson 1: The perfect warning sign only tells me things I need to know
I saw this sign on a stroll along the banks of the River Torrens in Adelaide.
I love it for its madness. And it’s pretty effective too. It made me both wary of pelicans and aware of what to do if one turned its fearsome gaze in my direction. I assume that pretty much nails the brief.
So I’m giving it one thumb up. It does the job it’s meant to do, but it could’ve been a lot shorter. I don’t need to be told to leave the park if necessary; I’ll just do it when the relentless pelican attacks get tiresome.
Lesson 2: If you want to warn people about four things, you need four signs
I saw this before a walk to Erskine Falls, just off the Great Ocean Road.
There’s something wonderfully deadpan about the last item on the list. This is Australia, it says. There are always snakes.
But I can only give it one thumb. It made me watch out for snakes, but I instantly forgot about all the other things. And anyway, what could I possibly do if a tree decided to fall on me?
Lesson 3: A sign should make you smile. (Or at least not frown.)
Australia’s signs are good. But it wasn’t until I got to New Zealand that I saw the perfect, two thumbs up sign.
It might just be me, but I think whoever wrote and designed this one did so with a bit of a wink. The subject matter is silly (penguins) and the sign is formal (shouty capital letters, black on yellow). That combo is one of the oldest tricks in the comedian’s book.
So thank you, Australia (and New Zealand). Without your warning signs I might’ve been mauled by pelicans, drowned in a flood, concussed by rocks, crushed by trees, poisoned by snakes and pecked to death by bloodthirsty penguins.
Now if someone can just tell me what this is all about, I’ll be a happy man:
We think it’s great that you’ve asked the British public to #nameourstorms. So we thought we’d weigh in, first with some advice, then with some suggestions.
1. Beware unintended consequences
Here’s some research that shows people aren’t as afraid of storms with female names as the ones with male names. It seems ridiculous but it’s worth looking into.
And if you’re thinking about basing the system on British towns and villages, you should read this blog we wrote about the World Health Organisation’s new naming rules. They launched the rules to stop people naming diseases after places, because those places suffer dips in tourism as a result.
2. Test it out in real life
People are going to suggest lovely naming systems like British foods or British TV shows. But Hurricane Fish ‘n’ Chips destroys village sounds flippant. So we recommend putting all the suggestions through the Daily Mail test.
Here’s what we think you could do
If you want to stick with gendered names, go for something more dramatic than common or garden first names. Ancient gods and goddesses like Artemis, Osiris and Magni would be a good bet. Or if you want to stick closer to home, you could go for Shakespearean names like Iago, Caliban and Goneril.
To avoid the gender danger altogether, you could go with colours or British surnames (famous or otherwise).
Thanks for reading. We can’t wait to see what you choose.
* If you just want a system that’s going to be super organised, you could copy NASA’s approach to naming comets by creating a sort of code: a letter describing the type of storm followed by the date it started. So G090915 would be a gale that started on 9th September 2015.
We know that’s not as attention-grabbing as Titus, for example. But you’ll never run out of names to choose from and there’s no danger of flippancy.
During the 2009 swine flu pandemic the authorities in Egypt had all 300,000 domestic pigs in the country slaughtered. The decision put thousands of farmers out of work and took an entire food source off the table. Not to mention the inhumanity of the whole thing.
It was the name. Bird flu had already caused panic around the world in the mid 2000s, when newspapers reported that the disease could pass from birds to humans. So when people saw the name ‘swine flu’, following the same naming template, they assumed they’d catch it from pigs. Despite the World Health Organisation repeatedly saying that couldn’t happen.
That example comes from the WHO’s Dr Keiji Fukuda, who’s just published some guidelines for naming new diseases.
Many will say it’s just abstract brand nonsense. But tell that to the thousands of needlessly panicked people.
And all those poor pigs.
Jargon. Ugh. Horrible stuff. The chattering of birds. The ramblings of nerds. As unintelligible as surds. (Maths was never my strong point.)
For all these reasons, linguists prefer the term ‘occupational dialect’. And if you put it in that context, you start to think a little differently.
Here’s what I mean. Imagine you’ve gone to see your GP and this happens:
GP: What’s your CC?
You: My what?
GP: Your CC. Chief complaint.
You: I’ve had this cough.
GP: Try some antitussives.
GP: Chlophedianol hydrochloride. Diphenhydramine citrate. Camphor. You know. Antitussives.
The main problem with that conversation is the jargon, right? Wrong.
Consider scenario two. Now you’re on the operating table.
Surgeon 1: Administer the Seldinger.
Surgeon 2: Okay. I’ve identified the right subclavian vein.
Surgeon 1: Good. Start aspirating the blood now.
This time the jargon’s vital. Without it the surgeon would waste precious time, so it’s fair to say it might actually save your life.
Jargon isn’t the enemy. As with all bad writing, the real culprit is a lack of empathy.
The golden rule is to use the most effective words at your disposal. If you’re a surgeon performing an operation, an engineer talking to other engineers or a footballer addressing his fans, jargon is effective, because everyone in the conversation speaks the same occupational dialect.
But if you’re an expert talking to non-experts, steer clear. They’ll only end up with acute cephalalgia.
Note to doctors: sorry if I butchered your dialect in the examples above. Biology was never my strong point either.
Remember Consequences? That game where you’d write a couple of lines of a story, cover up half of it and pass it on to the next person to continue?
We thought we’d bring it back to celebrate National Storytelling Week, which lasts from the 1st to the 8th of February.
We wrote the same beginning on three separate bits of paper and passed them on: one in our New York office; the other two on the second and third floors of our London office.
The results take us from button-obsessed Queen Boreen to a magical wish-granting psychic via a golden, one-eyed unicorn. We’ll be posting all three stories on this blog over the next few days, but be warned: we’ve never seen stronger proof that writing by committee doesn’t work.
TICUH TICUH TICUH TICUH TICUH.
For the last minute or so I’ve been secretly listening to Neil typing.
To me, it sounds like TICUH TICUH TICUH. To Mad (important capital) cartoonist Don Martin, maybe it would’ve been something else. You’d have to check this dictionary of all the strange sequences of letters he used to represent sounds.
Here are some of my favourite entries:
BBLLBBLLBBLLBBLLBBLL (man making lip sounds).
HAKKLE SLICE SHLURP BOIL RIP HAC CHOMP COOK EAT TEAR CHOMPITY-CHOMP (Robinson Crusoe and Friday eating food and each other).
KITTOONG, CHKLUNK (brain thrown into Frankenstein’s monster’s head like a basketball).
TWEEN SPWANG (man having pistols shot out of hands).
And now for the sound of me sending this to blogmaster Harry.
We’re always telling people to write more like you speak. Search for the phrase on our blog and you’ll find plenty of entries (one of which Neil wrote just last week).
Most people accept it as a helpful bit of advice, but others rail against it. They worry it’ll make them sound too informal. Unprofessional. Flippant, even. This latest entry to our write like you speak anthology is my response to them.
Picture the scene: it’s 50,000BC. Ig and Ug are hunting deer, and Ug’s managed to disturb a pack of woolly mammoths. Which of these warnings should Ig try?
a. ‘Watch out!’
b. ‘It is recommended that you adopt a movement strategy given the proximity of that large elephantine animalian solution!’
If you answered a, congratulations. Ug will go on to live a happy life and bear many children.
If you answered b, let’s just say there’s a lot of skewering.
For the likes of Ig and Ug, spoken language was – among other things – a survival tool. It was the best way to get a thought into someone’s head. Since then it’s grown in tandem with human progress, and it’s been chipped and shaped and moulded to do its job efficiently, clearly, brilliantly.
It’s the most nuanced and natural form of communication we have. It comes with pronunciation, emphasis, rhythm, volume adjustment and variable pace. It comes with eye contact, so people can hear what you’re saying in the full context of who you are.
And then there’s writing. An artificial series of squiggles that only vaguely correspond to the thoughts in our heads. At most, it’s had 5,000 years to evolve. Spoken language, if you believe Noam Chomsky, has had about 100,000.
Yes, you can choose to write on a banana if you want to show you’re quirky. Or write with letters cut from different magazines if you want to show that you’re trying not to show anything at all.
But there’s nowhere near the same amount of context, of choice, of colour.
And that, in a nutshell, is why writing more like you speak isn’t flippant. It isn’t unprofessional. It’s just human nature.
You know the saying: there are no statues of committees.
But there are lots of committees in the corporate world. As a business writer, every word you commit to paper will be scrutinised by a dozen eyeballs at least.
Maybe that’s because having opinions about language is difficult.
The committee acts as a safety blanket. If the hive mind agrees that the words are right, no single person needs to take responsibility if it all goes pear-shaped.
But let’s face it: committee decisions don’t tend to go pear-shaped.
The committee is a sieve. You put something jagged in one end and out the other comes a perfect circle. Smooth. Inoffensive. Beige. Like every Wikipedia article.
And that’s the thing. Though safety blankets are good for fighting disasters, they never come in shocking puce. Committees protect, they don’t provoke.
But sometimes writing should be jagged. It should piss people off. Make them gasp. Make them cry. Make them feel something.
That’s why everybody mentions either this or this when pressed for the best ad of all time. The VW ad will have put off swathes of potential customers. The Economist one will have irked anybody with a discrepancy between their age and job title.
Likewise, I’m hoping a lot of you will disagree with what I’ve written in this blog. Because that’ll mean there’s a core group of you who don’t.
But either way, at least you’ve reacted. If I’d put this blog through a committee, you wouldn’t have had the chance.
The British Library have just tweeted this pancake recipe from 1585. If you fancy a taste of the 16th century, here’s the same recipe made a touch more legible.
- A pint of thick cream
- Five egg yolks
- A handful of flour
- Two tablespoons of ale
How to do it
- Mix the cream, egg yolks, flour and ale in a bowl.
- Season with a handful of sugar, a tablespoon of cinnamon and a pinch of ginger.
- Melt a chunk of butter (about the size of your thumb) in a frying pan.
- Ladle some of your mixture into the pan and make sure it spreads to the edges.
- Fry over a low heat until one side is baked, then flip it over and bake the other side.
The other week we won a CMA award for a Twitter thing we wrote (woohoo!). Here are Michelle and I accepting the little round statue (next to a very bored looking Russell Kane):
The thing was a choose your own adventure story where you’d click hashtags to follow one of many possible plots.
The Twitterverse went mad for it. It got ‘unprecedented’ levels of engagement according to Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s sales director in the UK, who named it as one of his favourite creative uses of Twitter.
And it all started from – boo, hiss – a promoted tweet.
In case you’re not on Twitter, a promoted tweet is a tweet that drops onto your page completely uninvited and (usually) tries to get you to buy something.
It doesn’t work. It can’t work.
Think of any good TV ad. Probably the John Lewis snowman springs to mind. Maybe these Old Spice ads. Or these ads for the iPod.
They all give us something in return for our attention: an emotion, a laugh, a song.
Our Twitter thing gave people a story. So by the time they got to the actual sales pitch they were feeling pretty good about the company behind all this.
So there’s the moral. Think not what your customer base can do for you, but what you can do for your customer base.
(And most of all, never, ever use the phrase ‘customer base’.)
So the word of the year is omnishambles. Also on the shortlist were medal (as a verb), Mobot, eurogeddon and YOLO (you only live once).
Usually this announcement elicits a barrage of moans from language ‘purists’. So rather than wait for them to moan, we’ve decided to pre-empt them.
A quick bit of Google research tells me haircare, screenshot, gridlock, frizzy, dead leg, geek and panini only got into the OED in the last ten years or so. And they’ve all stuck because there’s a place for them.
The fact is, our language grows as we grow. As new things (and nuances on old things) come about.
Trying to restrict it, as many academies have, is like refusing to buy your child new clothes when they grow out of the old ones. Eventually you’re going to end up with an 18 year old wearing a pair of trousershorts (to coin a phrase).
And that does not look good.
Is it ideas?
Or is it inventions?
It pops up on just about every big business’ website.
The problem is that it’s one of those words you can use when you don’t know what you want to say. And if you don’t know what you want to say, your reader won’t either.
So if you ever find yourself wanting to use it, here are your options:
If you’re writing about people using their brains, go with idea. It conjures an image of people thinking in a way innovation doesn’t.
If you’re talking about something more tangible, the idea made real, then just say what it is. Or at least use a more specific word than innovation, like product or, if you can get away with it, invention.
If you feel like you can’t do either of those things, I guarantee you’re not making a clear point.
If you follow our Twitter account (@TheWriter), you might have spotted a little rant we had last night about people misusing reflexive pronouns.
Candidates were flinging ‘yourself’ and ‘myself’ around willy-nilly, where a normal person would’ve just said ‘you’ or ‘me’. It might seem small, but there’s a behemoth of a problem behind it. In business, it seems people feel they have to make everything more complicated than it really is. Even pronouns.
People in power, on the other hand, don’t. Have a listen to Alan, Nick and Karren next week. They’re usually the only ones making any sense.
Let’s start at the beginning: when we write, we write about things happening.
And things don’t just happen. Other things cause them to happen.
A hot food tax doesn’t just magically poof into existence. David Cameron makes it happen.
Candidates aren’t just suddenly fired. Alan Sugar fires them.
This blog isn’t just in a state of having been written. I bloody wrote it.
But here’s the weird thing: a lot of businesses try to cut David Cameron, Alan Sugar and me out of their writing. And as a result, it becomes completely unreadable.
The good news is it’s a really easy fix: just stop cutting out the doer.
Here’s what’ll happen to your writing (without you even realising it):
You’ll use the active voice instead of the passive
If you force yourself to say who’s doing something, that something can’t just be done. Cameron does it. I do it. Sugar does it.
Active verbs are shorter than passive verbs (do vs be done), and much more exact.
You’ll use more verbs
If you take the doer out of your writing you open the floodgates for nouns ending -tion, -sion, -ance, -ence, -ing and -ment. They’re impersonal and totally unnecessary. Take this, for example:
The utilisation of 3G is increasing
Much better as: People are using more 3G broadband
The stats show that turning those kinds of noun into verbs makes your writing easier to read. (If you don’t believe me, Google ‘Robert and Veda Charrow’.)
You won’t have to call people names they don’t like
Like ‘customer’ or ‘stakeholder’. They’re just ‘you’.
And as a result, people won’t fall asleep after the first sentence
Like you will if you try to read this doer-less paragraph I stumbled across on the web, which conveniently makes all my points for me:
The utilisation of health research in policy-making should contribute to policies that may eventually lead to desired outcomes, including health gains. In this article, exploration of these issues is combined with a review of various forms of policy-making. When this is linked to analysis of different types of health research, it assists in building a comprehensive account of the diverse meanings of research utilisation.
With a doer, it looks like this:
If policy-makers take health research on board, they’ll hit their goals. Like improving the nation’s health. In this article, we’ve taken that hypothesis and looked into different ways of creating a policy and different types of health research. It’s helped us build a full idea of the different ways policy-makers can use research.
So there you have it. Always ask yourself one little question: who? It’s the bad writing cure-all.
When we found out the Royal Court was asking people to write 100 word plays as part of the Young Writers Festival, we were intrigued. The idea is to write a play using 100 words or fewer, including stage directions. And by giving a word limit, you really have to think about every word.
It reminded us of an exercise we use in our training sessions. We're always telling our clients to say their main point first. And to get them doing this, we ask them to write six word stories.
This week, all week, we'll be posting our attempts at 100 word plays. We can't promise they'll be exactly 100 words long. Nor can we promise they'll be as good as Philip Hensher's The Passive Mood*, but we'll try.
An Abrupt Ending
Nick: She’s asked me to write a play.
He looks scared, deer in the headlights.
Steve: It’s easy. Get your characters, locations and plot, then stitch it all together.
Nick nods, but he’s frowning.
Steve: What’s the issue?
Nick: I have this... problem.
Steve: Is it endings? You don’t know how to wrap things up?
Nick: No, I’m okay with endings.
Steve: Stage directions then. You don’t know who enters stage left and who enters stage right?
Nick: No, there are only two characters.
Steve: Then what is it? You can tell me.
Nick: Well... after 100 words, I just
*Read what we thought about this in our eWhosit, our take on a monthly newsletter. And if you like what you read, sign up so you get it every month.
Does anyone remember the underpants gnomes’ profit plan in South Park?
Ahahaha. How absurd. The last bit doesn’t logically follow the first bit. Isn’t fiction fun?
Funny I should say that, because it’s not just fiction.
Look what the University of Wollongong is telling its students:
Highly nominalised writing can be difficult to read ... However, nominalisation is a significant feature of academic writing contributing greatly to its impersonal tone, abstraction and complexity. So learning how to use nominalisations in your own writing is an important part of becoming a sophisticated writer at university.
I’m sorry, what? Let’s deconstruct that.
First, they assert an opinion:
Highly nominalised writing can be difficult to read Yup, bang on. (For those who don’t know, ‘nominalisation’ means turning a verb into a noun. So ‘the use of’ instead of ‘using’, for example.)
Next, they drive that opinion home: nominalisation is a significant feature of academic writing contributing greatly to its impersonal tone, abstraction and complexity
Ouch. They’ve really got it in for nominalisation. Surely there can only be one way to end this argument:
So learning how to use nominalisations in your own writing is an important part of becoming a sophisticated writer
Astonishing. This must be why Neil hates teachers so much.
Ofsted wants to change schools’ ‘satisfactory’ rating to ‘requires improvement’. According to Cameron, it’s no longer enough for a school to be ‘just good enough’.
Hmm. ‘Satisfactory’ means different things in different contexts. If you’re asked to make a sandwich and you make a sandwich, you’ve performed that task in a satisfactory way. If you’re asked to cook a banquet for the Queen and you do that, you’ve performed that task in a satisfactory way too.
Changing the words feels like a pointless, box-ticking exercise. If the government really wants to see an improvement, shouldn’t they change their expectations instead?
At The Writer, we’re forever telling people to write like they speak. But is there really a difference between written and spoken language?
A few months ago a couple of us went to a talk organised by The Language Consultancy Association and came across Sketch Engine, a collection of language corpora.
Here’s what we found when we put our theory to the test.
Words people mostly write
Commence – came up 17.5 times more in the written English corpus
Obtain – 9x
Ensure – 7.5x
Purchase – 7x
Receive – 4.5x
Dynamic – 4x
Prior – 2.5x
Deliver – 1.5x
However – never came up in speech, came up 12,267 times in writing
Leverage – never came up in speech, came up 52 times in writing
Words people mostly say
Get – came up 14 times more in the spoken English corpus
But – 3x
Make sure – 3x
Start – 3x
Before – 1.5x
Buy – 1.5x
Give – 1.5x
The result’s clear. People don’t really say ‘commence’. They say ‘start’. They don’t really say ‘obtain’ or ‘receive’, they say ‘get’. They don’t say ‘however’, they say ‘but’.
Businesses should follow suit.
The Pakistan telecoms watchdog has banned people from texting ‘offensive’ words.
I’ve stuck quotes around ‘offensive’ because the list they’ve drawn up is a really mixed bag.
You’ve got ‘flatulence’ in there. And ‘fondle’. Those aren’t offensive words. They might be linked to topics you wouldn’t talk to your granny about, but they don’t hurt anybody. They’re not racist, or disablist, or sexist.
It seems to me we need to make a distinction between words that actually offend people, and words that make prudish people turn up their noses. What do you think?
Many moons ago I embarked on an exciting career as a place name scholar. I had my brown suede jacket, my thick-rimmed spectacles, my library card, and a curiously niche specialism: the names of the city of London.
During my research I came across such gems as Shitebourne Lane, which was later sanitised to Sherbourne Lane. And (brace yourself) Gropecunte Street, which I think has been mentioned on QI, and which means exactly what you think it means.
Place names are wonderfully organic. The oldest ones weren’t thought up by a committee in a featureless room with not enough windows. They were just the way people referred to a place. So they give us a glimpse into the most natural kind of name.
There are too many place names to generalise, but it’s fair to say a good chunk of them describe things that are concrete. In London, that means buildings (Spitalfields is named for St Mary Spital, a twelfth century hospital). Or the stuff that gets sold locally (Poultry). Or a natural feature (Appletree Yard).
You don’t see Synergy Square. Or Dynamic Avenue. Those are abstract concepts people can’t quite grasp, and as a result, tend not to remember.
But it’s a different picture entirely if you look at product names and brand names in the business world. Plenty of them paint no pictures at all.
At The Writer, we help companies come up with names for all sorts of things. And if there’s one lesson they can all learn from place names, it’s to tap into our basic need for something real we can picture in our heads. A concrete name, not something abstract. As place names show, it’s just human nature.
I was passing the time the other day by browsing through Wikipedia’s list of infectious diseases. Somewhere between actinomycosis and zygomycosis, I noticed something intriguing. Quite a few of them had alternative names next to them in brackets.
I could go on.
I’m going to go on.
Pertussis is whooping cough. Tetanus is lockjaw. Tinea barbae is barber’s itch.
In each case, one’s opaque, the other’s clear.
One’s devoid of connotations, the other paints vivid pictures in your head.
One’s formal, the other seems somehow a little bit less serious.
One’s Latin. The other, for the most part, is Anglo-Saxon.
'The US has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden'.
At 11.35pm last Sunday, the White House tweeted this sentence. On TV, we saw Obama say the same thing, word for word, in his address to the world.
It might just be the most debated, edited and redrafted sentence there’s ever been, because they absolutely needed to get it right. They weren’t describing a big, amorphous war, where hundreds die and hardly anyone notices. It was a group of soldiers sent in the night to put a bullet in a man’s head.
All of which makes it a fascinating linguistic case study. Let’s think about the raw content. If we turn the statement into a clear description, it becomes: ‘We have killed Osama bin Laden’.
But with Obama’s version, all ‘the US’ did was ‘conduct an operation’. We’ve seen in the clear version that there’s actually no need for ‘operation’ at all. It serves no descriptive purpose. It’s a stooge, heroically taking the blame for the killing.
But operations aren’t sentient beings. Having them do things, like kill people, is a rhetorical device called anthropomorphism. Authors generally use it to do surreal things with their writing. They never use it to describe something clearly and accurately.
Same goes for euphemism, tool number two in a writer’s repertoire of dishonesty. An ‘operation’ is just an event, an assignment. It says nothing about assassination. Obama’s statement shows he’s well aware of the dodgy territory he’s wading through. But this isn't the only time the big dogs in The White House have fudged their words after making a controversial decision. Here’s how they described the war in Libya back in March:
‘A time-limited, scope-limited military action’.
Don’t even get us started on that.
There are some things in life that nobody likes to talk about. Going to the toilet is one of them.
So we don’t talk about it. We ‘pass water’. We ‘relieve ourselves’. We ‘spend a penny’, ‘take a leak’, ‘powder our noses’, ‘do a number two’, ‘get the trots’, ‘answer a call of nature’. Those are the classics. More recent additions include ‘drop the kids off at the pool’ and ‘Montezuma’s revenge’. In fact, even ‘going to the toilet’ is euphemistic. I wouldn’t say ‘I’m going to the kitchen’, I’d say ‘I’m going to cook dinner’. But whereas the ingesting of food is a perfectly safe conversation topic, the digesting, and egesting, just isn’t.
That’s not to say there are no dysphemisms for ‘toilet’. Just that they all come with a shitload (literally) of euphemisms. So while we’ve got the onomatopoeic ‘piss’, we’ve also got its derivatives: ‘pee’, ‘piddle’, ‘wee’ and so on.
If you think about it enough, you’ll realise just about every word we use to describe defecation is euphemistic. Even the ones that seem pretty straight. ‘Defecate’ itself originally meant ‘to purify’. ‘Toilet’ comes from the French ‘toilette’, a protective cloth people used while getting their hair cut. ‘Lavatory’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘a place for washing’. Then there’s ‘bathroom’, originally a word just for a room with a bath. ‘Loo’, which might be from French ‘lieux d'aisances’, literally meaning a ‘place of ease’ (a bit like the American ‘restroom’). WC, short for water closet, might be the most ridiculous of them all. Nobody seems to know what it means.
The word that gets closest to hinting there’s something slightly unpleasant going on is ‘privy’, from the French word ‘privé’, meaning ‘private’.
Which leads me meanderingly to The Point. One of the big things we always say at The Writer is to write clearly. No jargon. No corporate guff. No tip-toeing around the point. The thing about euphemism is that it makes you look like you’re hiding something. It shows you’re not confident in what you’re talking about. So if you’re making somebody redundant, for example, don’t say you’re ‘going through a process of dynamic rightsizing’. Tell them straight, or you’ll find yourself in deep do-do.
This month’s six word story challenge on Twitter was TV series. Not everyone told us the show they were aiming for, so we might’ve made some errors.
PS. If anyone can help with the last one, stick in a comment. There’ll be no prize!
The Killing: Dead? Why? Too dark to see.
Quantum Leap: Everything works out ok...oh boy.
Glee: Sue and Britney make it watchable
Alan Partridge: TV presenter has difficulty Bouncing Back.
University Challenge: Paxman humiliates with a 'come on!'
Poirot: Pernickety Belgian uses little grey cells.
Top Gear: Insulting Mexicans, shirts tucked into jeans.
Grand Designs: Opinionated interior designer belittles hapless amateurs.
Friends: Chandler Monica Rachel Joey Phoebe Ross.
The Wire: The game is the game. Always. US Police & Political Corruption Central.
Frasier: Radio psychologist, Seattle skyline, a dog.
True Blood: Sex and blood, becoming far fetched.
Lost: Time travelling island confuses crazy people Then. But now. But also, when?
Crystal Maze (we think): Time travelling teamwork with bald host.
The Good Life: It's silly, but self-sufficient fun.
Arrested Development: It's called Arrested Development. It's funny.
Blockbusters: I'll have a P please Bob.
Neighbours: That soap Kylie Minogue was on.
The Inbetweeners: Disfunctionally optimistic teens make knob jokes.
Masterchef: Cooking doesn't get tougher than this.
Being Human: Dark, modern, gory take on Rentaghost.
Lewis: Endeavour died so now he investigates.
The Thick of It: British politicians fuck up (and swear).
Mastermind: ‘I’ve started so I'll finish' terror.
Strictly Come Dancing: Octogenarian presenter encourages celebrity dance embarrassment.
Fawlty Towers: Sarcastic hotel owner suffers gradual breakdown.
Match of the Day: Jug-eared philanderer ignores drawling Scot.
The Sopranos: Mob boss talks to therapist, alot. (Bit of a cheat. But worth it.)
The Avengers: Stylish duo fight crime, drive cars.
Silk: Shaft your colleagues and get justice.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Sociopath tv author pisses off everyone.
House: Sherlock Holmes in an American hospital.
Mad Men: Started monotone. Got colourful. Plenty smoking.
And one we couldn’t place: Rat Race escapee rotovates front lawn.
Little Red Riding In Da Hood
Biggie Bad Wolf
Lil' Tiny Tim
Da Joy Luck Clubz
Wind Willows Clan
Grand Wizzard Gandalf
Sherlock Homie and Dr Wat'sup
Long Island John Silva
Shy-Lox and Porsche
Tim-E the dog
The Fresh Prince (Hamlet)
Flau (bert) Rider
E. Eminem Forster
Virginia da Woolf
Of Mice and Eminem
The Kite Stunna
The Furious Famous Five
The Jungle Book Brothers
Snoop Doggs of War
Fantastic Mr Freddie Foxx
Spot The Dawg
*That’s Twitter Challenge, for the unrapducated among you.
We asked Twitterers what they’d call pancakes if they weren’t called, well, pancakes. This was the result.
Failed Yorkshire Pudding
Spongey Frisbee Flatbreads
Last month we asked our Twitter followers to tell us their favourite 19th century novels, but in six words. This month we’ve turned to horror movies. And here are some of the results:
Michael Myers. And not Austin Powers (Halloween) Aliens. Inevitable twist. Water. Keep swinging. (Signs) Nothing's happening. Nothing's happening. Nothing happened. (Blair Witch Project)
Shower scene. Reiii! Reiiii! Reiii! Reiiii! (Psycho)
That Damien, he's a wrong 'un. (Damien: The Omen II)
Monster destroys NYC. Captured on camcorder. (Cloverfield)
Twigs in patterns. Zip up tent. (Blair Witch Project) Shaky bed. Spinny head. Something's up. (The Exorcist)
One man. One chainsaw. Two faces. (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
Girls in a hole. With goblins?! (The Descent)
Policeman burnt by May Day celebrations. (The Wicker Man) Pooch bites US travellers in Blighty. (An American Werewolf in London)
Candyman! Candyman! Candyman! Candyman! Candyman! Aaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrgghuuer (Candyman)
Many flapping wings, in their faces. (The Birds)
Pianist embroiled in oedipal spree killings. (Profondo Rosso) Virgin policeman sacrificed for fruit harvest. (The Wicker Man) Devil rape. Pixie crop. Tannis root. (Rosemary's Baby) Intergalactic monster interrupts dinner, android revolts. (Alien) Snowbound writer's block creates family rift. (The Shining)
Don't sleep. Freddy's coming for you. (Nightmare on Elm Street) Slow walkers. Brain hunger. Car breakdown. (Definitely something with zombies.) Close ups. Snot. Sticks. Stones. Unexplained. (Blair Witch Project) Twisted doll, not Barbie. Runs amok. (Child’s Play)
Girl in bed. Priest. Holy shit! (The Exorcist)
You're back? But you were dead. (Return of the Living Dead)
Menopausal Sangria breakdown. Pierce Brosnan "sings". (Mamma Mia!)
Here’s a prediction from The Sun (via The Guardian):
The whole world could be speaking a single language called Techlish within 100 years. A blend of English and IT jargon is booming as hundreds of ancient dialects die out. (Quoted in The Guardian.)
It is, of course, absolutely wrong – people have been making the same predictions since time began. A good example was the Inkhorn Controversy in the sixteenth century, when English was borrowing words left, right and centre from Latin.
People hated the idea that English wasn’t good enough on its own. That erudite scholars had to taint it with foreign coinages. Critics called the new words inkhorn as a reference to the writing tool those scholars used. Illecebrous (attractive), exolete (obsolete) and fatigate (to fatigue) are a few of the words that didn’t survive for very long.
But the inkhorn terms that filled a gap in English lived on. Without that period of Latin influence, we wouldn’t have mundane, fertile, contemplate, confidence, frivolous and celebrate. And without this extra layer of vocabulary, we wouldn’t be able to express anywhere near as many different thoughts and feelings – and English wouldn’t be the wonderfully poetic and literary language it is today.
If a dialect dies out, it’s because nobody needs to speak it anymore. And if new words flood into English, it’s because there’s a genuine need.
People know that. It’s only the pedants who don’t.
*All the inkhorn words in this blog came from worldwidewords.org/articles/inkhorn.htm.
Meet Dave, the revenue protection officer.
You’re at a party. The mysterious shifts and waves of mingling lead you to a strange man called Dave. (Not strange as in odd. Strange as in you’ve never seen him before.) He’s standing alone, and later you’ll realise why, but for now you shake hands, introduce yourself, and ask what he does.
‘I’m a revenue protection officer,’ he says.
You nod, sagely. You seem calm, but inside your mind’s racing. Policeman? Banker? Accountant? Finance director? Pharmacist?
‘Basically I inspect tickets. On trains.’
Astronaut? Whaler? What?
End story. Cue moral:
If your business writing’s full of high-falutin’ words, your customers aren’t going to think you’re clever. Or professional. Or experienced. They’re going to think of Dave. And nobody likes that guy.