Writing directions – north, south, east, west … or what?

Am I joking? No. Writing directions from A to B ostensibly has become an obsolete practice since the emergence of the delightful SatNav.

However as we know the SatNav is not always quite on the ball. Stories about huge transport trucks being persuaded up muddy farm tracks abound. And despite the undoubtedly vast expertise of companies like Tom-Tom and Garmin, there ain’t such a thing as perfection, as you might discover here …. here …. here …. and countless other examples.

So what about reading a map? Shock, horror!! Not that long ago my son and I were driving somewhere in darkest Ontario and as we were floundering a bit in terms of finding where we were supposed to go, I ventured a suggestion that he open the glove compartment, take out the relevant map, and give me directions. His mouth gaped open and he gave the map a blank stare; didn’t have a clue how to use it.

“We don’t do maps now we’ve got SatNavs,” he grunted.

“Well, you just turn right by The George & Dragon, or I suppose it would be turn left if you’re coming from the other way…”

Angered, I raged on about the fact that these kids are taught geography at school to a reasonably high level, but what does it achieve? Do they really need to know the gross domestic product of Bolivia when they can’t even read a ****ing map? What happens when the SatNav breaks or its batteries die?

Why don’t Brits use the infallible north, south, east and west directions? They are just so easy to understand, and so hard to get wrong. (However, often if you direct someone in the UK to go north on the A456, they’ll say “which way is north then?”)

Take the “new city” of Milton Keynes, for example. Its original and still prevalent guidelines focus on its very sensible “grid” structure which echoes the way in which many North American towns have been built.

“When you get to the roundabout you’ll need to take the Bedford road, which will be about the third turning, but if you’ve come in from Ampthill way I suppose that would be the second turning…”

But do we, in the old-fashioned way of the British Empire, navigate even modern cities like Milton Keynes in terms of the highly understandable but rather non-British “north, south, east and west?”

No, of course not. Here in leafy Milton Keynes we see signs about “V” roads (vertical) and “H” roads (horizontal.) Naturally it’s not hard to relate that to the four practical signs of the compass, but why waste our time with horizontal and vertical roads and streets that could so easily turn around by 90 degrees and achieve a very different perspective?

Anyway, enough of this and on to writing directions. Much as British adults are unfamiliar with the four points of the compass and British children probably think they’re the name of a rock band, that’s all we have to work with.

So instead of writing “turn left at the Cross Keys pub if you’re coming from London or right if you’ve come from Birmingham,” write “go west at the Cross Keys pub.” With “west” in the directions it doesn’t matter if you’ve come from outer space; it removes any ambiguity and leaves the reader in no doubt about what to do.

If you’re writing an article or blog, say, and want to locate somewhere in time and space, don’t use up precious words along the lines of “you can reach the village easily as it’s about eight miles on the Oxford side of Banbury,  just along the A421 off junction 15 of the M40, towards Milton Keynes…” Simply write “You can reach the village easily by going 8 miles south on the M40 to junction 15, then east on the A421.”

Similarly, even in a novel or a short story the points of the compass can smooth and speed descriptive passages along…instead of “her elegant country estate was a mere 20 miles from London along the main road towards Brighton,” try “her elegant country estate was a mere 20 miles south of London on the Brighton road.

Do you use the points of the compass to compose directions? Share your views here!

Now, get writing in the right direction for you

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  1. The writer of this article is a xenophobe.

    • ROFLMAO … I’ve been called many things in my time but xenophobe is a new one. Considering you submitted this comment at roughly 02:45 your time, Dave, I suggest you go to bed and sleep off the vitriol. (And good luck with selling “Dave.com” – should bag you enough to retire on.) 🙂


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