In his regular column on the art of persuasion, Sam Leith explores a grammatical construction he calls the “marketing gerund” (AKA present participle): “‘Delivering quality first’ is a BBC Trust slogan. If it sounds like anodyne business-blurb, that may just be the temper of the times: that subjectless “-ing” form of slogan is ever more widely used… Why is it so popular? My hunch is that it is an elegant, if slightly cheesy, way of having your cake and eating it. It puts, right up front in your slogan, a strong and action-filled verb but it also makes it sound almost stative (describing a state of being rather than an action)…an ongoing thing.”
Like all the tools and rules of writing, the ing thing is neither good nor bad. It can be used more or less well and a lot of that comes down to context. But there’s no denying its neat power to free actions from the shackles of a set time and space and in so doing to give your communication a touch of the eternal.
I’ve just finished reading How Music Works – a mighty fine book by one of my heroes, David Byrne. It’s packed full of all kinds of good thoughts and insights – from the importance of context in any kind of creation to the need for empathy for any type of communication, from the vocal roots of song to the merits of amateurs.
Oh yes, and the multi-layered, non-hierarchical nature of acoustic culture compared to the relatively fixed views of visual culture – “In an acoustic world one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies.” It’s a point that’s all the stronger coming from a dude who’s known not only for great songs but also great images – he of the totally enormous big suit and collabs with the late great Tibor Kalman.
Along the way, he describes how he came up with the lyrics for one of my favourite songs, Once In A Lifetime. “I tried not to censor the potential lyrics I wrote down. Sometimes I would sing the melodic fragments over and over, trying random lyric phrases, and I could sense when one syllable was more appropriate than another. I began to notice, for example, that the choice of a hard consonant instead of a soft one implied something, something emotional. A consonant wasn’t merely a formal decision, it felt different. Vowels, too had emotional resonances – a soft ooh and a pinched aah have very different associations.”
So the trick is to treat consonants and vowels, the building blocks of your words, as melodic fragments – for as Mr Byrne highlights, the feeling as much as the meaning is key.
“Choose the English that helps you win” runs the headline of Michael Skapinker’s article in the FT, following the launch of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Global Englishes. “That’s right: Englishes, because as the language spreads, people are speaking and writing it in many different ways.”
With multiple forms and over a million words and counting, we’ve never had so much choice. Our happy challenge is to craft a winning English for every context and occasion. One that’s as fitting as it is characterful – from Compare the Meerkat’s Simples speak to the Queen’s English.