Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business. Just don't call it a blog...

I ate, I shot, I left

December 2013

English is a complex language. Its complexity is the result of its age and the fact that so many races and nations have contributed to its structure and vocabulary, often violently. English tells the history of its own evolution, which continues to this day.

That history provides rich pickings for a select group of people who believe that there is only one true way of writing in English, and that the one true way of writing in English must be based on strict rules of grammar.

Such people delve like archaeologists into the mausoleums of writing past, blowing the dust off ancient textbooks that describe the first recorded use of a gerund in English literature, finding new evidence for 17th century papal opprobrium of split infinitives, seeking out new and exciting ways they can criticise and lament the quality of journalism in today's broadsheet newspapers: "Sir, in my day any fool would have known that the declarative form of..."

It's balls.

Books like Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the title a reference to an old joke about pandas and what a difference a comma can make, attempt to cut through this shamanic grammatical nonsense and provide clear, basic rules about punctuation and suchlike that people can follow in their everyday writing. Which is admirable, but it shouldn't be necessary. A sheet of A4 paper with a few reminders is all that's required for the majority of people to avoid the common pitfalls that can reduce the quality of their prose.

Some people use grammatical rules and software tools to help them seem more intelligent in their written work, and there's certainly a lot to be said for making sure you know your its from your it's, your their from your they're and your there, and your your from your you're (read it again: it makes sense).

But to go far beyond that stage, to start thumbing through books of grammatical rules so obscure you have to think twice before you even understand their purpose, is to miss the point of writing entirely. Writing is communication. If you are to communicate effectively you must be clear and concise and meaningful. This is where the Grammar Pedants meet the Plain English people head on, and I'm firmly on the side of the latter.

As The Daily Mash satirical website puts it, "I correct minor grammar points. I am amazing."

Style is a different matter. There's nothing wrong with having a style guide for your organisation's writing output, because consistency is important. You probably don't want the first half of an important document using '8' while the other half uses 'eight'... or perhaps you do, but at least with a style guide you can do it intentionally.

But style isn't grammar. Style lets you choose between 'Mbps' and 'Mb/s' if you're talking about the data bandwidth of an Internet connection, for example, but grammar tells you how to organise the sentences that describe that connection. And the deeper you delve, the more rigid and tortuous the rules of grammar become. (And not only should a sentence never start with 'and', but a preposition is a word you mustn't end one with).

Strict adherence to antique grammatical standards is quaint, but language is evolving. More important these days is an understanding of the psychological power of words and how they affect thinking and decision-making.

The so-called rules of grammar are wonderful for psychology-savvy wordsmiths like us at Ministry of Prose, because we can gain more conscious attention from our readers simply by subverting them (the rules, that is; not the readers). This means taking advantage of the brain's unconscious processes that focus attention on incongruity, on things that are unexpected and don't fit in. That's what I did near the top of this article, where I followed a long, rambling paragraph full of big words with a single two-word sentence containing a borderline obscenity.

Newspaper sub-editors use this tactic to good effect and always have done. It's been three decades since the UK's The Sun newspaper used the headline "Gotcha!" to describe the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands conflict, but the headline was so far removed from the grammatical standards of the time that it remains ingrained in many people's minds to this day. Grammatically (and politically) it was appalling. Psychologically it was genius.

Greengrocers' apostrophes are still banned, of course, at least for everyone except greengrocer's'. But the rules of grammar are not really rules and never have been, in spite of what some sincere, authoritarian pedants in luxuriant beards, corduroy jackets and leather sandals might have you believe. At best they're temporary guidelines, reflections of a brief snapshot of human communication, transient signposts on an ever-shifting linguistic landscape.

We evolve. So does our language. Use what works.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and doesn't own a corduroy jacket.

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