Wogan’s words

Tributes to the much-loved broadcaster, Terry Wogan, speak of his ability to communicate with millions as if they were his friends. Many also mention his skilful use of the English language.

When the BBC was taken to task some years ago for failing to police its presenters’ and reporters’ use of English, the campaigners made an exception for Wogan.

An obituary in the Telegraph remarked that Wogan, as an enthusiastic reader of PG Wodehouse, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, could lay claim to a certain erudition. He himself said he was a bit lazy, but according to another newspaper, he just didn’t let on how clever he really was.

He came up with some wonderful phrases, but in my view a large part of his secret was that he mostly used simple, everyday words. A computer analysis of the language used by successful communicators, including Terry Wogan, found that they all used a high proportion of simple words that everyone would understand.

Read and enjoy the BBC’s page called Sir Terry Wogan in his own words.

Google’s new Terms of Service

Google have had a lot of flak from privacy campaigners and even the EU for their new Terms of Service, which came into effect on 1 March.

More interesting for Clarity is that they’ve made a big effort to use simple language and avoid legalese. They’ve also included links to explain technical terms in plain English. Finally, they’ve taken out a lot of the repetition, turning 26 different privacy policies and agreements into one.

It’s much easier to read these two sentences:

We are constantly changing and improving our Services. We may add or remove functionalities or features and we may suspend or stop a Service altogether.

than the original:

13.3 Google may at any time, terminate its legal agreement with you if:

(A) you have breached any provision of the Terms (or have acted in manner which clearly shows that you do not intend to, or are unable to comply with the provisions of the Terms); or

(B) Google is required to do so by law (for example, where the provision of the Services to you is, or becomes, unlawful); or

(C) the partner with whom Google offered the Services to you has terminated its relationship with Google or ceased to offer the Services to you; or

(D) Google is transitioning to no longer providing the Services to users in the country in which you are resident or from which you use the service; or

(E) the provision of the Services to you by Google is, in Google’s opinion, no longer commercially viable.

Awkward sentences such as “Google is transitioning to no longer providing…” are a problem for readers. Many people would struggle to understand Google’s strange use of “transition” as an intransitive verb.

If you’re so inclined, you can compare the new and old versions: http://www.google.com/intl/en-GB/policies/privacy/archive/

Just because …

I recently received an email asking if it was ever OK to begin a sentence with the word “because”. It’s definitely one of those words, like “and”, that people are reluctant to use at the start of sentences following years of tellings-off from dogmatic grammar teachers. The emailer also asked if, having decided that you were going to use a conjunction at the start of a sentence, “as” was preferable to “because”.

I prefer “because”. Because The Economist’s Style Guide doesn’t mention this, I referred him to a higher authority, Emily Dickinson. The literary aficionados among you will know her poem Death and its famous opening lines:

“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;”

If it’s good enough for Emily, it’s good enough for me. She chose “because” because it had two syllables and kept the meter of the poem. That said, she was writing poetry, not letters about mortgages, so here’s my explanation of why you should use “Because” and not “As”.

Compare the following:

“As I was starting to feel sick, I decided not to go to work today.”

and

“As I was starting to feel sick, a knock came at the door.”

In the first sentence, the second half is directly related to the first half. It’s the reason that I decided not to go to work. In the second sentence, however, the first half is just setting the scene for what happened afterwards. Because “because” is never used in that second sense, it avoids any confusion the reader might feel about scene-setting.

I admit that we generally prefer short words to long ones, and “as” has that on its side; but because it has more meanings, “as” can actually create more confusion than the straightforward “because”.

Why bother with grammar?

“Why can’t we let people write the way they want to?” someone challenged me in a training session last week. Like many others, he had never been taught grammar at school and didn’t see why he should start now. And he cited his heroes – Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs – as examples of writers who broke the rules to terrific effect.

He had a point. Are the old rules still relevant in the age of texting, tweeting and instant messaging? Some people think those platforms encourage dumbing down, but aren’t they also full of genuine creativity? So why can’t we be a bit less rigid about grammar and spelling in other written communications as well?

Then I went back to those beat writers, and guess what? Their spelling is conventional. Their grammar is impeccable, unless they choose otherwise. And their punctuation is perfect. Which may explain why my challenger, despite his self-confessed ignorance, understood instinctively how to use commas.

You need to know and understand the rules before you can start breaking them.

Tautology

Tautology is the habit of saying the same thing more than once in slightly different ways. “Free gift” is a good example as a gift is something you don’t pay for. Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire is more extreme as it literally means “Hill-hill on the Hill”. We all know that repetition creates emphasis, but repeated repetition, as it were, quickly becomes tiresome. It’s often done by people hoping to sound knowledgeable, but can have the opposite effect as the more someone goes on about something, the more desperate they sound. In fact I’m getting ever closer to tautology myself, so here’s a real-world example before I get carried away: it’s that supremely irritating expression “going forward”. Whenever I see it used with the future tense as in “Going forward, we will have to develop a new strategy”, I cringe. Just remove those two words, and we have a perfectly clear sentence.

“Around”: the preposition that can make your writing sound slippery and bureaucratic

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

Last week I reflected on the tendency for business types to favour the invasive-sounding “into” over the correct “to”. Today, I turn my attention to another preposition you should be careful with: “around”. Continue reading ““Around”: the preposition that can make your writing sound slippery and bureaucratic”

What’s with this word “into”?

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

If I were to go round claiming that the square root of 100 is 15 or that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1783, I’d quite rightly be thought a fool. What’s more, I’m fairly sure most people wouldn’t hesitate to inform me of my ignorance.

So why is it that when it comes to the English language many business folk seem to think that getting it wrong makes them sound impressive? Continue reading “What’s with this word “into”?”

The rules you follow that make smart people think less of you

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

A new post over at the Daily Writing Tips blog discusses the contentious issue of paragraph length (gosh, we writers really are a sad bunch).

You know, that old rule drilled into us at school about never, ever, writing a paragraph that’s less than three sentences long.

I’m afraid I disagree with this ridiculously prescriptive idea. What if you can say what you’re trying to say in just two sentences? Continue reading “The rules you follow that make smart people think less of you”

Possibly the most embarrassing apostrophe crime ever

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

Note to the The National Literacy Trust: when you’re bewailing the poor grammar and punctuation skills of the UK population, do try and get it right. Continue reading “Possibly the most embarrassing apostrophe crime ever”

What happens when you don’t bother to get a writer in

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

This, from a full-page ad for Hill & Knowlton, who describe themselves as “a leading international communications consultancy”. I spotted it in the “Thought Leader Series” supplement, which came with a recent issue of “PR Week”: Continue reading “What happens when you don’t bother to get a writer in”