Why wouldn’t you want to be clear?

The obvious answer is – if you want to mislead. A fascinating study published in the US Journal of Language and Social Psychology suggests that when scientists’ research turns out to be fraudulent, the language is often a giveaway.

Two researchers at Stanford University, California, studied more than 250 scientific papers that had been found to be using fraudulent data. They then compared the style of writing with that used in the same number of papers that were sound. They found that:

"fraudulent papers were written with significantly higher levels of linguistic obfuscation, including lower readability and higher rates of jargon."

In business, unclear writing is also revealing. It suggests a lack of confidence. Studies of the language used in annual reports, including one we at Clarity carried out some years ago, show that companies that are successful tend to write annual reports that are shorter and clearer than those not doing so well.

Of course, a lot of unclear writing is not meant to mislead or cover up. It’s just that the writer hasn’t put in the work needed to make it clear. And it is hard work. But if you don’t do it, there may be a price to pay: your reputation may suffer. Readers may lose confidence in you and your organisation.

There’s more on this in an article called Research shows connection between content clarity and business credibility at Precision Content.

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.

Learning from a writing master

Skewering the phoney and pretentious is one of the great pleasures of life. It doesn’t happen often enough. Thank goodness for the likes of Richard Ford, the American novelist, who sets much of his work in New Jersey, but writes about people who are recognisable anywhere.

I just read this passage from The Lay of the Land (the third in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Rumour has it a fourth in the series is to be published this autumn), in which Frank is describing his daughter’s new boyfriend:

“Thom teaches equestrian therapy to Down’s syndrome kids at a ‘pretty famous holistic center’… He read Sanskrit, history of science and genocide studies, swam or rowed till books got in the way; born abroad of mixed parentage, he has a deep honeyed voice that seems made of expensive felt; he plays a medieval stringed instrument, of which there are only ten in existence; has mastered Go, was once married to a Chilean woman and has a teenage child in Montreal he’s deeply committed to but rarely sees. Worked in Ghana for the Friends Service, taught in experimental schools (not Montessori), built his own ketch and sailed it to Brittany, wears one-of-a-kind Persian sandals, a copper anklet, black silk singlets suggesting a full-body tan, sage-colored desert shorts revealing a shark-bite on his inner thigh from who-knows-what ocean, and always smells like a fine wood-working shop.”

Enough. Perhaps Ford is overdoing it a little, but I laughed aloud in recognition, although of course I have never met anyone like that. The point is that the observation is so acute, the accumulation of detail so telling, that you, the reader, feel that you know this man – and know him to be a snake.

If you want to write well, read Richard Ford and learn a trick of two from a master.

Doges and lolcats

I don’t normally write about internet memes, but I do like to write about the way language changes and I think that increasingly those changes are conceived online.

Captioned pictures of animals speaking in a unique way are nothing new. We’ve had the “O RLY?” owl and the lolcat but the latest addition is the doge, the Guardian’s candidate for meme of 2014.

Each animal meme has its own grammar, mimicking the supposed thought patterns of the animal in question. So while lolcats are obsessed with “can has”-ing more things, doges are in a constant state of “amaze” and “wow”. I can’t quite work out why owls would be incredulous, but then they are famously wise creatures, so perhaps they know something I don’t.

As some of these memes move offline, their grammatical patterns may become standard use. After all, “hello” started as a telephone greeting before becoming ubiquitous. That said, I can’t imagine the boss asking if he “can has a photocopy of much annual report“.

For a more in-depth look at the grammar of the doge meme, listen to Gretchen McCulloch on Radio 4. Gretchen also wrote a great article for The Toast blog.

A final note on pronunciation. Clarity’s style is “dogue” (to rhyme with “vogue”). “Dog-e” is too easily confused with “doggie” and “dohj” sounds too much like a Venetian ruler. Although the latter does give me a great excuse to use the following picture:

doge doge

Word of the year 2013: troll

I’ve picked ‘troll’ because it has recently changed its meaning. I’m not talking about the word in the sense of goat-bothering, flesh-eating monsters. I’m not even talking about the change it experienced around 20 years ago, when it started to refer to problematic users on internet message boards.

A bit of history: most online forums don’t like it if you’re rude to other users. If you write something attacking another user, referred to as ‘flaming’, you can lose the right to post or even get banned from the forum. This led to a form of harassment where some users would try to make others flame them and get them banned. These users, the trolls, would have their fun by posting things designed to make people angry and seeing the enraged responses. The origin is probably linked to the monster of myth and legend.

But the word has undergone a further metamorphosis in the past year or so. It has been used to describe people who harass others more directly. Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasey and many others have been attacked for their feminist views by Twitter trolls. Others have used ‘trolling’ to describe people posting unpleasant comments on Facebook, ask.fm etc.

This behaviour is more like what would have been referred to as flaming some years ago. So why don’t people use that word? Well, ‘troll’ is more evocative than ‘flamer’. It brings to mind ugly, misshapen creatures, huddled in the dark: many trolls in folklore are turned to stone by sunlight. Trolls hide under bridges the way online trolls hide behind the anonymity of their usernames.

So I like ‘troll’ because it shows how old words can be repurposed, even if they’ve been nearly forgotten. Our language is always changing, even if the changes are only small, and I think that’s rather magical.

Phone + tablet = ?

If you love using your tablet, but you wish it were a phone too, you are probably the target market for the latest addition to the mobile device family: the phablet.

Yes, we have smartphones, and large tablets and mini tablets, so it was only a matter of time before someone developed the obvious portmanteau for “small tablet you can make phone calls on”. Look how earnestly Techcrunch use the word in this article*: http://techcrunch.com/2013/04/18/lumia-phablet-rumour/

Why don’t I like it? It doesn’t sound enough like a phone. A “fablet” (which is what you’d say out loud) might be some sort of “fun tablet” or a “fake tablet” or any number of other things. It’s not immediately clear what a phablet is. Beyond that, it’s a pretty ugly word – “phab” is not an attractive collection of letters. It seems that companies are desperately keen to carve their own niches in the mobile device market, and will use neologisms, suffixes and any other weapons they can to do that.

So let’s take this to its logical conclusion, shall we? If there are netbooks – how about one that stores everything online? A “cloudbook”**? If we have laptops something half the size would be a “thightop”. A netbook you can make calls on would have to be a “netphone” (after all, “phonebook” is taken). And a fax machine for your lap would be the “lapfax”. How about a netbook without internet access? We could call it just a “book”.

What’s my point? Much as I like new words, there are things that have been coined that really never needed to be. “Phablet” may yet take off, but the word sounds about as awkward as holding up a 7″ tablet to your face and talking into it.

*To be fair to the author, she does express misgivings about the word before using it repeatedly.

**I’m aware that I have basically just described a Chromebook – maybe a ChromebookMini?

An advert that’s giving me a headache

When I saw a particular advert this morning, I was tempted for the first time in my adult life to vandalise a poster. If, like me, you’re a bored train commuter, perhaps you recognise the following:

“This is for those who take their own route. The ones whose spirits can’t be dampened, even by the rain. For the ones on a constant journey. For those who try, try again. This is for those who live by the saying ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’.”

Can you work out what this advert is selling? Possibly a backpacking holiday somewhere cool and exotic like Brazil or Thailand? Or maybe a shiny new 4×4, perfect for offroad trekking?

Or maybe glorified ibuprofen. That’s right, this is the latest advert for the irritatingly-spelled Nurofen. So what’s my problem with it? Mostly I think they’re kind-of overreaching a bit. Their tagline for the campaign is “for lives bigger than pain”, but what they really mean is “for headaches”.

Nurofen’s Facebook page is filled with stories of people bravely taking their own decisions, living life to the full etc. I guess when you’re competing with every generic manufacturer out there, you’re forced to try to differentiate yourself somehow. That said, I can’t help but feel that the “normal” approach to selling drugs – sciencey words and images or maybe before-and-afters – is more effective than desperately wishy-washy life-affirming claptrap.

In fact, maybe there’s room in the market for a new drug that takes the Ronseal approach – “Headache pills. For when you have headaches. Take two with water and your headache will stop.” At least that advert wouldn’t give me a headache!

Websites need style

Having a style guide is essential for a professional-looking website or publication. We at Clarity have written style guides for clients, usually big companies, but having one specially written is probably beyond the means of small and medium-sized businesses. For the rest of us, the best thing to do is to borrow someone else’s.

I recently came across the government’s digital style guide and thought it really good. After several months, it’s still in draft – alpha not even beta – which reinforces my view that compiling one’s own tends to be a never-ending task.

As well as the familiar advice about addressing the user as “you”, using simple language and avoiding awful phrases such as “delivering improvements”, it has helpful tips specific to websites, including search engine optimisation. For example, “Frontload keywords” in page titles: that’s web-speak for “put important words at the beginning”. The style guide gives the optimal length of a description meta tag, tells you how to code subheadings and so on.

Best of all I’ve seen so far is “This isn’t a dumping ground for information that doesn’t fit the other headings.” The phrase “dumping ground” is used more than once, recognising that too many websites are full of information that gets in the way of what users actually want. So “if you can’t find a place for it, don’t use it.” That’s good advice.

Euro lifeboats and other metaphors

The European Commission has just inaugurated the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which is basically a large pot of money meant for keeping struggling Eurozone members afloat in tricky times. The President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, was speaking at a maritime conference, so he decided to use a fitting metaphor to describe the ESM. Here’s what he said:

“So, since we are in a maritime conference, if I may use a metaphor – we have been building the lifeboats during the storm in the Euro area and it is not easy to build the lifeboats during the storm, but we are making progress and I am fully confident that our member states, after what are always very lengthy negotiations, will keep this momentum so that we can show our common determination facing the challenges and difficulties that we know still exist.”

Apart from the fact that this is an enormously long sentence, there’s a glaring flaw. Lifeboats are normally ready before a storm. And then they’re deployed only when the ship is sinking because the storm has damaged it. If you’re building lifeboats during the storm, the ship is going to sink and everyone on it will drown. Not exactly encouraging for Eurozone members.

Perhaps a more appropriate naval metaphor would be one I used in the first paragraph, keeping countries afloat by repairing them, bailing them out etc. Or something about the ESM being a strong anchor for the Eurozone ship in rough seas. I’d love to hear your thoughts on maritime metaphors for the Eurozone crisis.

Lessons from the poets

On National Poetry Day, a poet appeared on BBC Radio 4 this morning to criticise what he called the daily abuse of language by politicians. Michael Horovitz said every politician should learn a poem and say it back before making any public pronouncement.

That should keep quite a lot of people quiet, but we might extend this rather startling advice to all of us who write as part of our job.

It is echoed in a lecture given some years ago by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Joseph Brodsky. In Brodsky’s words, “Poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation – especially one on paper. The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity.”

It reminds me of Matthew Arnold, another poet who came up with a wonderfully pithy comment on writing style. “People think that I can teach them style,” he said. “What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”