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People and words

You gotta laugh

For weeks now people have been using words to make us laugh. Here are a few examples.

My niece Tina told me the following story.

“What just happened to me? It’s getting crazier all the time. And it always happens to me. After weeks in an intelligent lockdown.

Today I went to the supermarket to buy a bag of cat food. In the queue a woman behind me asks whether I’ve got a cat. Because of social distancing she spoke a bit louder, so that everyone could hear. I looked at her, and thought … duh!

Why would I buy cat food? Eh?

But impulsively, I said no, I don’t have a cat. I told her I’m starting again on the cat food diet. And that I actually shouldn’t, because last time I ended up in hospital, although 15 kilos lighter.

I told her the cat food diet is the perfect diet. You only have to put a few bits in your pocket. Every time you get hungry, you take one or two.

By this time the whole queue was listening to my story.

Visibly shocked, the woman asked whether I ended up in hospital because I was poisoned by cat food.

Naturally, I answered, no, I wanted to climb a tree to catch a bird, and then I crashed down.

I thought the man behind her was going to get a heart attack laughing. Fortunately not, because you don’t want to resuscitate someone mouth-to-mouth right now.”

Eleven-year-old Finn told me this joke.

Three boys are walking down a pavement. They’re called: Bog Off, Manners and Shut Up. Suddenly Bog Off runs across the street and gets run over by a car. The other two first don’t know what to do. Then Manners decides to go and pick him up. But Shut Up runs to the police station.

The police officer at the desk asks: “What’s your name?”

“Shut Up.”

The officer asks again: “What is your name and where are your manners?”

“Half way down the road, picking up Bog Off.”

One they used to tell in the Netherlands.

Pudding and Yesterday are two boys. They’ve been bad and were sent to Pudding’s room upstairs. Mum warned them not to disturb her again.

Suddenly Yesterday says: “I have to poop.”

“Me too,” says Pudding, “Let’s do it out of the window.”

As it happens, some of the poop falls on the head of a man, who’s just walking by. He immediately rings the bell: “Your children are pooping on my head.”

Pudding’s Mum answers: “Was it Yesterday?”

“No, today.”

Mum: “Was it Pudding?”

The man, now outraged: “No, it was poop.”

“Well,” says Mum, “Then it couldn’t have been my children.”

Natalie contributed two jokes.

Man: “I almost got bitten by a Great Dane while on my walk today.”
Woman: “Goodness, can you imagine if that had been a small child?”
Man: “I think I could have handled a small child.”

Russian computer: Password needed
Me: Beef Stew
Russian computer: Password not stroganoff

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People and words

The colt bolts

There’s an aspect that has been overlooked in the reactions to Dominic Cummings’ 2020 blog “‘Two hands are a lot’ — we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos …” The Special Adviser to the Prime Minister uses tired language.

Cummings employs phrases such as “low hanging fruit”, “truly awesome”, “absolutely cutting edge”, “wild cards” and “see what bounces back”. This is tired language – figures of speech that once rang in our ears but are now cracked through overuse.

Copywriting

We all use clichés when we speak, but they’re best avoided when you’re writing to appeal to your readers, notably in copywriting.

Why avoid such phrases? Simply because many readers will recognise them for what they are, as George Orwell noted in Why I Write (1946): dying metaphors, pretentious diction and meaningless words.

And their appearance puts the reader to sleep. Or while yawning, your reader quickly decides there’s nothing new, skips to the next full stop and misses what you have to say.

Better still

In my experience, to get people’s attention, deepen their interest and help them develop their thoughts, it’s better to keep it simple or invent a new metaphor that conjures up a vibrant image.

For example, instead of “fresh as a daisy” (used since 1780), write “healthy and full of energy” (what it means).

Or use your imagination, as Emily Flake did in 2018 when she wrote in The New Yorker about Jubilee Street being performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: “the song bolts out from under him like a half-broken colt and explodes.”

By the way, Flake’s words may well have been intended as an inventive adaptation of The Colt Bolts, the title of a composition by Bad Seed Warren Ellis from 2015, which you can hear in the film Mustang.

The photo in this post, like most pictures on my website, is by Norma Braber-McKinney.

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People and words

How to build trust with words

Saying that words are building blocks is stating a commonplace. But it’s true. Words are the building blocks of language. Written and spoken, they can connect and elevate people. Words can also build trust. Here’s how.

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker writes in The Sense of Style:

[…] style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily.

In other words, if a text used to sell a product or service is – in the eyes of the reader – written in an even manner and without mistakes, the reader will probably feel more confident that the product or service does what the text says it will do. A similar case can be made for text to promote a company, brand, person, policy or simply an idea. Or scripts for video, tv and radio commercials.

The choice of words

Some words are good at conveying trust. Pinker, above, is well aware of this and he uses words like trust, consistency, accuracy and reassured. He also appeals to our feelings about fairness by saying that style earns trust. Many of us think that if we earn something, we deserve it, and therefore it’s fair that we get it.

Trust is a precious commodity in marketing and corporate communication. Good copywriters build trust by using words that convey trust, and by writing with clarity. However, that’s often not enough to persuade a sceptical consumer or doubtful purchase manager. For copy to be successful, it also has to appeal to the heart, and make a convincing argument.

A  convincing argument

An argument can be different things. I’m not talking about a shouting match or assertions like “We’re the best” and “Probably the best” – they don’t convince anybody.

A convincing argument presents clear and honest evidence and its conclusion follows logically from that proof. Here’s a classical example:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Or:

Humans sometimes make mistakes.
Writers are human.
A writer can make a mistake.

Sometimes it’s unnecessary to spell out the argument – it can be implied or suggested, and then the trick is to create a line of reasoning in the reader’s mind.

Other tools

Using words that convey trust and making a convincing argument are only two aspects of building trust with words. Other tools of successful copywriting include showing empathy, conjuring up mental images and evoking the right emotion.

If you’re interested in the features of building trust with words, my workshops may be something for you.

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People and words

Taste in rule’s clothing

The British Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has told hospital doctors to write to patients in plain English and avoid the use of Latin, acronyms and technical terms.

There’s nothing wrong with asking doctors to be clear, but the Academy’s guidance also says doctors should avoid the passive voice. Now, that’s wrong. Here’s why.

Rules

English grammar has rules.

For example, adjectives should come in distinct arrangements. The Cambridge Dictionary states: “When more than one adjective comes before a noun, the adjectives are normally in a particular order.” For example, the ‘little white lamb’, not ‘white little lamb’ because an adjective denoting size comes before colour.

If you don’t want to emphasise any one of the adjectives, the usual sequence of adjectives is:

  1. opinion, for example magnificent
  2. size, for example tall
  3. physical quality, for example lean
  4. shape, for example muscular
  5. age, for example young
  6. colour, for example grey
  7. origin, for example Canadian
  8. material, for example tough
  9. type, for example lively
  10. purpose, for example predatory

That makes ‘a magnificent, tall, lean, muscular, young, grey, Canadian, tough, lively and predatory wolf’.

Misconceptions

There are also misconceptions about grammar rules. For example, the idea that ‘fewer’ must always be used with count nouns, as in ‘fewer than five sheep’. But almost everyone uses ‘less’ with singular count nouns, for example ‘one less wolf’. And many people say ‘less than five lambs’. It’s not grammatically wrong, but some people don’t like it. It’s a matter of taste or preference, not a rule.

The reasoning that for clarity purposes the passive voice should be avoided is also a misconception based on taste or preference. The passive cannot be ruled out. One of the reasons for using it occurs when you don’t want or are unable to describe who’s undertaking the action.

So, my advice to the Academy is to change their guidelines – the suggestion to avoid the passive voice can be removed painlessly.

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People and words

Why do we have so many accents?

This post about language and identity was written by linguist Natalie Braber, Associate Professor in the School of Arts & Humanities of Nottingham Trent University. Versions of this article have also been published by The Conservation and The Scotsman.

Where we come from matters. Our origins form an important part of a distinctive personality, which can become a group identity when we share these origins. More often than not, our use of language, especially our dialect, is an expression of that distinctiveness. In addition to using distinctive words and grammatical patterns, which may not follow the rules of Standard English, people have accents, related to their pronunciation when they speak, which can articulate their identity.

Where they come from

Dialects and accents developed historically when groups of language users lived in relative isolation, without regular contact with other people using the same language. This was more pronounced in the past due to the lack of fast transport and mass media. People tended to hear only the language used in their own location, and when their language use changed (as language by its nature always evolves) their dialect and accent adopted a particular character, leading to national, regional and local variation.

Invasion and migration also helped to influence dialect development at a regional level. Just take the Midlands in England, for example. The East Midlands were ruled by the Danes in the ninth century. This resulted, for instance, in the creation of place names ending in “by” (a suffix thought to originate from the Danish word for “town”), such as Thoresby and Derby, and “thorpe” (meaning “settlement”), such as Ullesthorpe. The Danes, however, did not rule the West Midlands, where the Saxons continued to hold sway, and words of Danish origin are largely absent from that region.

Where they appear

Dialects and accents are not restricted to English or UK English for that matter. In the US, Australia and New Zealand, where English has been spoken for a much shorter period of time than in the UK, you would expect less variation as English has been spoken there for a shorter period of time. But even there, dialects and accents occur and the linguistic influence of settlers who came from certain parts of the UK such as Scotland or Lancashire helped to determine local varieties.

A similar phenomenon appears in the UK. During the 1930s, Corby in Northamptonshire received a big influx of Scottish steelworkers. Here, there are features in the local language – for example, pronunciation of vowels in words such as “goat” or “thought” – which we think of as typically Scottish that are still used even by townsfolk who have never been to Scotland.

Other influences on language use

Other factors influence language use, too. One of them is social class. Very many local accents are now associated with working-class speakers, while middle and upper-class speakers tend to use a more standardised English. But this is a relatively recent development. Indeed, until the standardisation of English from the 16th century – when one variety of English came to be used in official situations and by printing presses for the wider publication of books – it was acceptable for speakers of different social classes to speak and write in their own dialects. Then, Latin and French were regarded as prestigious languages, applied by the elite in education, law and literature.

Changes, for example through music

Dialects and accents are changing and will continue to change. After all, language never stands still. Some traditional dialects are disappearing, but new urban and multicultural varieties continue to arise. Some accents are deemed “better” than others and certain features may become fashionable.

This can be influenced by music. At the moment, linguistic features of “black English”, associated with hip hop, grime, R&B and rap music – such as “bae”, “blood” or “brother”, which can all be used as forms of address – are regarded as “cool” and are adopted by other speakers.

Why people vary their language use

In addition, people change the language they use depending on who they are talking to, and why they are talking, for example formally in a job interview or casually to friends and family at home. People also change the way they speak to make themselves understood more easily, a phenomenon called linguistic accommodation.

Ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and age can all affect language usage. And there are also personal reasons for using dialects and accents to identify yourself. I have lived in England for 16 years, but you can still hear my Scottish accent and that is unlikely to change.

Or will we speak all the same?

Speakers’ language varieties can converge (become more similar) or diverge (become more different). And as the modern world becomes increasingly connected, linguists have wondered whether dialects and accents in general are bound to disappear.

There is certainly such a thing as “dialect levelling” – differences between dialects appear to be vanishing, which could be a consequence of the rise of mass and social media. But while there is much discussion about the disappearance of dialects and accents, public interest in the subject is growing.

They are here to stay

A consensus has not yet been reached. In UK English, some features may be spreading like wildfire through the country, such as people saying “free” instead of “three” – a linguistic change known as th-fronting. But differences persist, and speakers in Liverpool still sound very different to speakers in Plymouth.

In my opinion, dialects and accents are here to stay. Humans enjoy being part of groups, and we can consider language as a key means of expressing the perceived differences between “us” and “them”.

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People and words

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.

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People and words

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.

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People and words

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.

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People and words

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’.

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History

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.”