How to write as people speak

Now that the mass media with its “newspeak” vocabulary has been part of our lives for several generations we really can’t afford to be pompous about traditional English any more. Even the stuffiest of academics has had to admit that stiffly formal writing is not clever, it’s boring. They may look down their noses at the language of popular tabloid newspapers, FMCG advertising and the Internet, but that’s the language nearly everyone speaks today. I won’t waste your time on my theories about why that has happened, but the bottom line is that English as a language has become simpler and less complex than it was 100 years ago.

And quite right too. I’ve never understood why some people get so uppity about the fact that a language has evolved. Mind you they’re often the same people who complain about the way that furniture design has evolved and French cuisine has evolved and then those damned real estate developers are daring to cut down eight trees to make room for six new houses along the street and tut, tut, life was so much better in the good old days.

Well, you and I haven’t got time to mourn the relegation of Shakespearean English to books and the stage, even if we want to. We’ve got work to do here and now, and these days we write as we speak.

No excuse for poor grammar, syntax etc

“Writing as people speak” is not an excuse to be lazy about grammar and syntax. It’s a faster and more efficient way of putting across ideas and communicating messages.  And because you don’t have the formality of old-fashioned “grammatically correct” syntax and clauses and long adjectives and everything else to hide behind, your message is standing out there all by itself. So it’s got to be strong enough to hold its own without the support that old-fashioned writing often gives to less-than-strong messages.

Having said that old-fashioned writing with perfect grammar and syntax and spelling etc. can be forgotten, perhaps this should be a very short article – because today we can all write what we like in the way that we like? Well yes, but wait a minute.

Know the rules before you break them

Rather like with golf or poker, with writing you need to know what the rules are, before you can benefit from breaking them. Now, I’m not going to launch into a lesson in English grammar here because that would be insulting your intelligence and education.

What I am going to say is, use your knowledge of English grammar, your common sense, and also your knowledge of what your audience will be comfortable with … or if you want to push the boat out, what your audience will not be comfortable with, but feel exciting challenged by. (However don’t forget that there’s a big difference between being a bit shocking and smacking them over the head with a verbal claw hammer.)

What you really do need to avoid is not the blatant, deliberate thumbing of the nose at grammatical correctness such as that found in consumer advertising campaigns, but the piffling little mistakes you see in some marketing communications which are simply the result of ignorance and carelessness.

These are the goofs that separate the professionals from the amateurs. It’s the body copy that talks about “you” in the same sentence as “them” when referring to the same person. It’s the long-winded sentence in a business letter or e-mail that has so many dangling participles you could decorate a Christmas tree with them.

It’s the absence of an apostrophe when we’re talking about “it is” and the inclusion of an apostrophe when we’re talking about something belonging to “it.” (And in the UK at least, it’s the inclusion of an adverb between the two halves of an infinitive … many Brits still cringe when they hear the Startrek line of “to boldly go.” But in the USA no-one seems to mind. Ah, vive la différence.)

Small goofs = ignorance … big goofs = novelty

These small slips and goofs in grammar, punctuation and syntax really do cheapen people’s written material (more noticeable, of course, on paper or screen) and they drop the writer’s credibility right into the doo-doo.

But the bold gestures … the one-word sentence, the verbless sentence, the folkloric use of slang and so-on … these are so obvious that no-one is going to think they are oversights. This makes them acceptable – even effective.

If you take a look at some of the top-end consumer advertising that I so enjoy snarling at most of the time, you’ll see how such deliberate, bold grammatical mistakes not only work well, but also manage to make the advertising look classy and svelte.

The secret of success here is the intelligent and measured use of poor grammar, and that’s something professional copywriters are very good at. For well-meaning amateurs, however, remember that there’s only a fine line between the slick and the sloppy and it takes experience and expertise to keep everything on the slick side. It’s a lot safer to stay away from the borderline so if you want to play the brinkmanship game, you have been warned…

Get writing and speaking successfully:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English