Guiding lights

Style manuals – who needs them? Well, I do. I want to write better and I’ve found that some style guides help me improve my writing.

One of the most helpful guides is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. I also rely regularly on Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield.

An old-time favourite is Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers by Harold Evans. It was published in 1972. Nowadays, I use the 2000 edition of this book, which was revised by Crawford Gillan.

Evans was Editor of the Sunday Times and The Times. Following this lead, I also look for guidance in The Times English Style and Usage from 1992, edited by Simon Jenkins, and the present-day The Times Style Guide, edited by Ian Brunskill.

The joy of mere words

One of the reasons for liking these guides is that they set out the standards in a positive and inspiring way. It’s obvious that their authors have, like George Orwell, “discovered the joy of mere words” (Why I Write, 1946).

This is how the guide authors, coming from different generations, express that joy.

The cognitive scientist and linguist Pinker (born 1954) writes: “Style […] adds beauty to the world.”

Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) was a teacher turned writer. Discussing formal language, he wrote that we weigh our words like we choose our clothes: “We tell our thoughts, like our children, to put on their hats and coats before they go out.”

The journalist Evans (born 1928) adds three practical points: “[…] every word must be understood by the ordinary reader, every sentence must be clear at one glance, and every story must say something about people.”

Constant change

A more mundane reason for using style manuals is that living languages like English change all the time. For example, new words come into use and old ones change meaning. Good guides keep me informed of these changes, so that I know what my reader understands when I use a specific word.

Finally, these manuals advise me on how to compose phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and stories. I hope you find them useful too.

The photo in this post was taken by Norma Braber-McKinney.

Short and simple

In my copywriting workshops I urge people to write in a style that’s short and simple. For example, by using small and clear words rather than long and complex ones. Why write “commence” when you can use “start” or simply “go”?

I also invite workshop participants to challenge me if they think I’ve got it wrong. For one reason: I’m human and I do make mistakes.

So, recently a participant told us that he felt that longer and more complex words made a textual argument stronger, because the reader would judge the writer as being intelligent, and therefore more convincing.

Is clever better?

His remark ignited a discussion about whether being clever makes a text better.

I recalled a study by Daniel Oppenheimer from Princeton University called “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”.

It concludes: “When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction.”

In other words, “write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.”

Is there ever?

Oppenheimer’s conclusion leads also to a further question. Is there ever a need in copywriting for long and complex words, or jargon for that matter?

In my view, this depends on the reader of the text. When you want to adopt the language the reader is using in order to get the message across, you may need to include the difficult words they’re using. For example, and provided you understand them, you can use technical terms when writing for technicians or scientific phrases for academics.

Quick and easy

But even in these situations, you could bear in mind what the Dutch agency BureauTaal has found, namely that people with higher education levels give a document written in simple language a much higher quality mark than a difficult one.

Perhaps this is caused by most well-educated people, who tend to be strapped for time, appreciating a text more when it’s quick and easy to read rather than a piece they’ve got to plough through.

The long and short of it in copywriting is that if you, like me, are somebody who can write but isn’t a genius, you better make it snappy.

What’s the right sentence length?

A friend once asked me how many words to use per sentence. An awkward question. Usually, he was a man of many words, so I told him: “Better keep it short.”

But he had been commissioned to write an article and insisted on an exact answer: “How many words per sentence? On average?” I suggested 18 – the devil is in the detail.

Useful advice?

To my surprise I later saw this suggestion in a plain English guide. It didn’t explain how they had reached the figure of 18. Other writing manuals give similar advice, sometimes providing a number, often between 10 and 22, and sometimes offering suggestions such as “try to keep sentences short and succinct”.

Is this advice useful for marketing and corporate communications? I don’t think so. Keeping sentences short speeds the text up. That may be useful, but unfortunately a sequence of short sentences can sound like “Ta, ta, ta. Ta, ta, ta. Ta, ta, ta.” A machine gun. It gets boring quickly and turns your reader off.

The spice of life

Variation is the spice that makes your words come alive. For example, you can write in the style of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth: short-short-short-long, sounding like “Ta, ta, ta, dah.”

5thWriting is composing. You need rhythm. You need melody. It’s classical, but if you prefer music hall, you can go for “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!”

So, what to do when your sentence gets too long, too wordy? Perhaps it’s caused by you trying to cram too many thoughts in one sentence. If that happens, you could follow one of my guidelines:

One thought per sentence. Get quickly to the point.

Active or passive?

If you were typing this sentence, you’d probably get told off by your word processor.

The reason is that the makers of applications such as Microsoft Word don’t like the passive voice. And Word shows its dislike by underlining the sentence with a green squiggly line. It wants you to use the active voice: your word processor probably doesn’t tell you off for this sentence.

Before you ask, the passive voice is a language construction in which the usual object appears as the subject, and the usual subject is an object or absent altogether. For example, ‘the ball is caught by Joe’ is passive and ‘Joe caught the ball’ is active.

Much maligned

The passive voice is much maligned. Only yesterday I read in a manual that prescribes writers what to do: ‘Change passive sentence constructions to active.’ Other style manuals give similar advice.

There are good reasons for following this advice. To name just a few – an active construction is usually shorter than a passive one, and using a series of short and swift sentences can help the reader, especially when it makes the text easier and quicker to read. It can also render your words more direct and powerful.

The way we talk

A final reason for using the active voice is that it’s more like the way we talk. When we speak, most people use an active voice rather than a complicated passive construction. Apparently, because when speaking, we have less time to think about what we want to say.

But that raises a paradox, because the passive tense tends to be overused by people who rush into writing without thinking through what they want to write.

The reader’s attention

In any case, there are equally good reasons for ignoring the manual that forbids the use of the passive voice.

One reason is that you can use it to direct the reader’s attention. For example, in ‘Joe catches the ball’ the reader’s mental eye sees Joe first, but in ‘the ball is caught by Joe’ the image in your mind shows the ball whizzing through the air before Joe catches it.

Sometimes the passive helps you stage an event, moving effortlessly between subject and object. For example, ‘the ball was caught by Joe. He threw it back.’

Finally, you can use it when you don’t want or are unable to describe who’s undertaking the action – the usual subject – as in in ‘we were robbed’.

How history is brought to life

In my research project on  German immigrants in Nottingham during the First World War I’m working with the Trent Academy Group, which consists of Rushcliffe School, The Farnborough Academy and Arnold Hill Academy.

Students and teachers from these schools collaborate in defining research questions and conduct aspects of the research activity and dissemination of the research findings. Furthermore, they are engaged in the production of lasting learning materials on this subject.

So far, ten Year 11 and 12 and thirty Year 9 students from the three schools have taken part in the research work. Below you can read what one of the students wrote in the July issue of their school magazine, the Rushcliffe Post.

We found out what happened to German individuals

“World War One is on our collective conscience currently as we are in the middle of the 100 year anniversary; with soldiers rightly remembered. However, what about the people left behind? What about the residents of Nottingham? In particular, what if, like the poet and First World War soldier Siegfried Sassoon- you had German ancestry, or were German? The three schools of the Trent Academy Group have been given an excellent opportunity to work with an historian on a project that will try to answer this question.

TAG 1The first part of the project entailed us spending a day in Nottingham Central Library and Nottinghamshire Archives, under the direction of historian Ben Braber. The students were given a framework to work in, but were using their research skills to find out about what happened to German individuals. Ultimately, their research will help develop knowledge and understanding about the impact of the war on the people involved and the wider community.

On Tuesday 12th July we went to the Nottinghamshire Archives. Our task was to find out as much information about Germans/Austrians living in Nottingham in WW1.

TAG 2Our person was a German man called Alexander Seelig. We shared what we had found out through looking through an accounting book and various old letters about Seelig to the other people at the event. Seelig was accused of trading with the enemy and found guilty. Before he was imprisoned he had his own export trading company called “Seelig & Company” which were an extremely wealthy company.

We then researched different people who were German/Austrian who lived in Nottingham using online records. After researching two different people we came to the conclusion that they must’ve been visiting or imprisoned as nothing came up for them. However we then were given a final person to look at called “Isaac Bowmer” and we found out that he was of Austrian heritage. We found a newspaper article showing that he’d committed suicide because he was so fearful of what might happen so him as an immigrant living in Britain.

Overall the day was extremely enjoyable and we learnt a lot about German and Austrian immigrants in Nottingham from 1910 onwards and how they lived there life.”

Hidden history brought to life

My current research project is on German immigrants in Nottingham during the First World War. It’s a collaborative undertaking for academics, teachers and students.


This project breaks new ground, because it examines a subject that has been somewhat overlooked.

The examination focuses on: German migrant numbers and ethnic coherence; their participation in the wider society; prisoners of war, implementation of national measures such as arrest, internment and deportation of German nationals; hostile attitudes such as Germanophobia; riots and disturbances, for example in May 1915 following the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania; and German reactions and support for the German migrants in Nottingham throughout the period.

This is new research, because the subject has not only often been ignored in academic research, but it has also largely disappeared from the collective (public) memory.

Furthermore, whereas other research and publications on Germans in the UK during this period are usually limited studies on other localities or general countrywide overviews lacking local detail, the findings of this local examination are reviewed in a UK context.

For these purposes the project uses primary sources on the history of Nottingham, available in local and national depositories such as Nottinghamshire Archives and the National Archives, and secondary sources on the history of the UK in this period.


I’m conducting this project with academics at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, and we are working with the Trent Academy Group (TAG) – a multi-academy trust that supports schools in providing outstanding education for their pupils. The members of the Group are: Rushcliffe School – An Academy specialising in Science; The Farnborough Academy; and Arnold Hill Academy. All three are based in Nottinghamshire, and teach the First World War as part of the curriculum.

TAG students and their teachers are collaborating in defining research questions as well as conducting aspects of the actual research activity and dissemination of the research findings. Furthermore, they are engaged in the production of lasting learning materials on this subject.


In addition to the focus of examination mentioned above, the students are questioning differences and similarities between the period of the First World War and today when it comes to the position and treatment of foreigners such as immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and the development and maintenance of British values in times of conflict, terrorist attack and war.

This assists them in broadening and deepening their historical and social knowledge and developing and honing their research and dissemination skills, and it helps them and their fellow students to identify with historical personalities and events in order to gain a greater understanding of past and present.

Thus, the project brings to life a hidden history of integration and segregation, and makes it relevant for young contemporary audiences through involvement, collaboration and dissemination, leaving a legacy in terms of experiences and learning materials that can be applied in future education and training.

What’s not to like

The girl in the queue was excited. You couldn’t help but overhear what she said to her friend: “I went like … But he wouldn’t come.”

I like the word like. And I like the way people use it.

For example, you can use it as a verb to say you enjoy a cup of coffee, when saying you love it would be too strong. Or you can say you’d like tea, meaning that you’ll have tea rather than coffee, but you don’t want to sound commandeering.

A screaming banshee

Like is also a preposition, noun or adjective, when it means as though, as if, as it were, so to speak or the same as. For example, “she screamed like a banshee”, which means her voice was similar to that of an Irish house spirit wailing about an impending disaster.

The use of like as an adverb in spoken language is fascinating.

You can use it to show people that you’re uncertain about something you’ve just said: “There’s a funny smell – sort of dusty like.”

Or “this is like the only way to do it.” In which case, you know there’s no other way, but you want to soften the blow for the listener.

“He’s like”

When you’re a bit unsure about quoting somebody, you could say something like this: “So he comes in and he’s like ‘Where’s everybody?’ Well, how would I know?”

Like can be a meaningless filler or tag. For example when you say “I was like going out” or “I was going out like”.

Fillers and tags

The thing is, such fillers or tags sometimes have meaning. For example, in parts of the UK people use them more than in other parts, like on the east coast of Scotland. Irvine Welsh’s Rent-boy in Trainspotting says: “Well, I’ll come back with you if you like, but like, I’m not promising anything, you know.”

So you can use words such as like to express a sense of belonging or emphasise an identity.

Finally, apparently meaningless fillers and tags are used when people get emotional, like the girl in the queue. She was very angry, at her boyfriend or another male, and with saying “like” she expressed that feeling.

It’s uncanny

It’s uncanny when a bank launches a promotion campaign for an ISA account aimed at “the canny saver” just after you’ve published an article about the word canny.

You’d think that somebody’s ripping off your idea. But it was probably more like two people coming up with the same thought – what a lovely word, let’s see how we can use it. In any case, here’s a reproduction of my article.

How it started

One of the first recordings of canny dates from the late sixteenth century, when people in Scotland used it for shrewd, related to can and meaning knowing how to. Hence, a canny lawyer. In England people later adopted this use as in a canny Scot – a thrifty guy with an eye for a chance to make money.

It also became a loaded term, meaning cunning or wily. But then something funny happened.

What changed

During the early eighteenth century canny also came to convey nice or good in northern English. From there it was only a small step to she’s a right canny lass – an attractive girl.

Canny lassies
Canny lassies

Further north, the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759–1796) used it to express quiet or snug and cozy: But gie me a cannie hour at e’en / My arms about my dearie, O (from Green Grow The Rashes).

New uses

In the late nineteenth century Scots started to ca’canny, but that was going slow at work. There are more uses of canny, one of them too vulgar too mention.

Confusion arises when people in Scotland say cannot. It can sound very much like canny, as in: you cannae shove your grannie aff a bus.

Meanwhile, uncanny means strange, especially in an unsettling way with a hint of malice. Like when you feel that someone’s watching you – it makes you uncomfortable.

But it’s wrong

Here’s a question. Which of the following two sentences do you prefer?

1. But I’ve always written like that.
2. However, I’ve always written like that.

Many people believe 1. is wrong, because they say you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, which is a word such as ‘but’ that’s used to connect parts of a sentence, clauses or words. ‘And’ is another conjunctive word.

But is it really wrong?

The idea that you’re not allowed to start a sentence with a conjunction comes from what linguists call prescriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar

Prescriptive grammar goes back a long time. The seventeenth century poet and playwright John Dryden was one of the first to make prescriptive pronouncements. Other early rule-makers were Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth.

These men wanted to fix the form of the English language. Their ideas laid the groundwork for grammar textbooks. As result, you may have been taught prescriptive grammar at school.

Prescriptive grammar says you cannot start a sentence with ‘But’ or ‘And’.

But why not?

There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest you can. The Bible, as early as Genesis 1.2 in the King James Version of 1611, starts sentences with “And then …”.

You can get modern arguments too. For example from Harry Ritchie or Steven Pinker. In his 2013 book English for the Natives Ritchie argues that the classical dictates of grammar are voiced less and less. And in his 2014 guide The Sense of Style Pinker says there’s nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

Other, and perhaps less controversial language experts that preceded Ritchie and Pinker, such as Henry Fowler and Robert Burchfield, have also rejected what they called the apparently unshakeable belief that conjunctions must not be used at the opening of a sentence.

So, according to these specialists, it’s all right to start sentences with ‘But’. For example, it can be used to introduce an exception, objection, limitation or contrast.

Graceful or forceful

Placing ‘But’ as the first word can actually make a sentence more graceful as the novelist Iris Murdoch has done: “Of course they loved her, the two remaining ones, they hugged her, they had mingled their tears. But they could not converse with her.”

Starting with ‘but’ can also make your writing less formal or more forceful. Just think about Sherlock Holmes’ powerful reply “But, my dear Watson …”

Personal preference

So there’s nothing wrong with ‘But’ at the start of a sentence. It’s a matter of personal taste or individual preference. And that’s what the use of language is about: finding the right words for what you’ve got to say and the people you’re talking to.

Finally, playing with language can be fun. For this post I asked a linguist for an expert opinion. This is what he put in the subject box of his email reply: “Does my BUT look big in this?”

What’s the use

Front cover image of This Cannot Happen Here.In my book This Cannot Happen Here – Integration and Jewish Resistance in the Netherlands, 1940-1945 (published by Amsterdam University Press) there’s a small section on the ways in which Jews used language. Here’s that passage.

During the 1930s Jews in the Netherlands were becoming part of a changing Dutch society. They contributed to some of the changes, but during the process of their integration into Dutch society Jews did not necessarily lose all characteristics of their Jewish identity. However, less than in the past Jews defined these characteristics in terms of religion such as congregational membership, synagogue attendance, observance of Jewish rituals and participation in organised Jewish education and activity. More than before, Jews in the Netherlands maintained and further developed Jewish identities in other aspects their daily life. This was expressed, for example, through the way they spoke.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century most Jews in the Netherlands spoke Dutch, which had replaced Yiddish as their everyday language. This had been a slow process, with Yiddish being diluted with Dutch, but the development accelerated after changes in education, where Jewish children increasingly took part in general, not specifically Jewish education. By 1900 some families still spoke Yiddish at home, but this was regarded as uncivilised by the establishment. Not only Jews changed their language – the general population also altered language use. Like other living languages, Dutch was constantly changing. Significantly, several Yiddish words were introduced into Dutch and used by non-Jews. For instance, the phrase het was een sof to indicate that an event had been bad or the use of the name Mokum for the Dutch capital Amsterdam showed that language change was part of a process of mutual cultural transfer.

The historian M.H. Gans has made several observations about the language spoken by Jews in Amsterdam. He noted their patter had certain characteristics that distinguished it from the Dutch spoken by non-Jews in that city.

Traditionally, the Jews of Amsterdam lived in and near a quarter on the east side of the city centre. It was not a restricted area or ghetto and was also inhabited by non-Jews. The old Jewish quarter in Amsterdam belonged to the part of the city that had some of the worst slums. Demolition of slums forced their inhabitants to move. Some individuals who were successful in business or employment also moved voluntarily to neighbouring and further outlying districts. However, such moves were by no means permanent. Sometimes people moved on, at other times they returned to the old neighbourhood, for example because they preferred living there as they had remained outsiders in the new neighbourhood or because they were forced to return as they could no longer afford the usually higher rents of their new homes. In any case, by 1930 only about 18 per cent of all Jews in Amsterdam still lived in the old neighbourhood. In 1941 there were four neighbourhoods in the capital where more than 50 per cent of the inhabitants were Jewish. In other neighbourhoods Jews often lived in clusters.

The population of Amsterdam used numerous language variants, some of which were specific to neighbourhoods. Jews had their own accents in the neighbourhoods where they were concentrated or they adapted the accent of the neighbourhood in which they lived or to which they moved.

Overall, Jews in Amsterdam pronounced some letters less sharp, their intonation was dissimilar, and they gave words extra endings, changed syntax and word order, and made different word choices and combinations. To some, this language sounded more melodious, others found it exaggerated or even vulgar.

Linguists have pointed out that it is common to have several speech communities within one city, which show differences in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation or intonation. These sometimes long-lasting differences can be caused by real or perceived ethnic origins. While this is a group phenomenon, individuals within one family can use different spoken variants of a language, not always depending on their education, and one person can use various language forms at different times, often in relation to the people he or she is addressing. The language Gans heard from Jews in Amsterdam can be best described as a non-standard variety of Dutch. For example, the feature he mentioned of wij bennen instead of wij zijn (we are) is characteristic of non-standard language.

Jews may have used language variety for several reasons. An overtly flowery word choice could have been typical for persons who were uncertain about their language use, for example, working-class people who thought their language use was improper or incorrect. This relates to what linguists call striving for overt prestige (in the eyes of users of the standard language) rather than covert prestige (in the eyes of users of non-standard forms). It suggests that the Jewish users of standard and non-standard Dutch wanted to express a sense of belonging, either to the group that apparently spoke the standard variety – ‘proper Dutch’ – or to the group that did not. As such, how Jews spoke and what they said could have been knowingly or unintentionally a response to attitudes about Jews in the general population, a wish to hide or express a Jewish identity or a desire to participate in or abstain from certain activities, both Jewish and general activities. However, the use of a non-standard variant could also cause misunderstandings between Jews and non-Jews, which set Jews apart within the general population.