Tell your truth beautifully…
“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations… They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries…” So begins the only known recording of Virginia Woolf, who goes on to explore why it is so difficult “to create beauty… to tell the truth…” with the “half-a-million words all in alphabetical order” at our disposal.
Easy or not, and our current culture’s love of image notwithstanding, words are arguably our primary tool for telling the truth and creating beauty (ideally at the same time). As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “Humans have a special power to connect with and regulate each other: words. In my research lab, we run experiments to demonstrate this power of words. Our participants lie still in a brain scanner and listen to evocative descriptions of different situations. One is about walking into your childhood home and being smothered in hugs and smiles. Another is about awakening to your buzzing alarm clock and finding a sweet note from your significant other. As they listen, we see increased activity in brain regions that control heart rate, breathing, metabolism and the immune system. Yes, the same brain regions that process language also help to run your body budget. Words have power over your biology – your brain wiring guarantees it.”
Given the undoubted power of words, what can we do to up our chances of using them wisely and well? Virginia Woolf has some good advice at the end of her talk: “words…like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them…they like us to pause…”
So the next time you have to use one or more of those half-a-million plus wonderful words in our lovable language, take a moment. Listen for the echoes. Look for the associations. Think about what you feel. Do your best to tell your truth beautifully.
Show feelings effectively…
Picture the scene: our hero walks down the road. Hang on a minute – ‘walks’? That’s not much help. Howabout ‘trudges’, or ‘skips’, or ‘saunters’, or ‘slouches’, or ‘rushes’, or ‘ambles’, or ‘totters’, or ‘strolls’ down the road. To tell a vivid story, choose your verbs with care.
As my daughter’s English teacher puts it so well: “Verbs show feelings effectively.” In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte drives the point home with the help of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” And in so doing, they take us with them.
For economy of style and poetic punch, verbs are your best friends. So if you want to add colour, sense, meaning and emotion to your story, resist the temptation to add adjectives or adverbs. Simply be precise with your verbs. And if you think this might be a tad limiting, take heart in knowing that there are well over 30,000 verbs in the English language. More than enough to play with. Enjoy!
Living in English…
In a recent episode of Open Book, Isabel Allende touched on the long and the short of today’s storytelling:
“Literature has changed – it has become much more direct, more visual. There is less space and patience from the readers – for baroque literature, for long sentences, for very long family sagas. That was what people were reading in the 80s, but not any more. So the world has changed, literature has changed, and me too, because I live in English. In Spanish, to the say the same thing, it takes us, like, five paragraphs. Because, because we go around, beat around the bush, we are polite, we think that being too direct is rude. In English, it’s the other way around. You cannot test the person’s patience. You just go to the point immediately.”
There are certainly times when getting to the point is the priority, but I’d say that in English there is still not only room but also a fair degree of appetite to take people along with a long story. Living in English, for me, is essentially about being open to all kinds of storytelling. Long and short. Direct and less direct. Like the look and the feel of a story, the length should be led by the tale that needs to be told.
Trusty and welbeloved…
Around about the time that Henry V’s longbowmen were winning their famous victory at Agincourt, his pen was setting English on its way to becoming the language we know and love today. “Trusty and welbeloved, we grete yow often tymes wel…” so begins the first letter in English that we know of by a King of England, sent in 1417 to all the citizens and aldermen of London. Six hundred years on, the spelling has aged but the meaning remains clear – a warm greeting to the people who had helped finance Henry’s French wars.
By adopting English as the official language of court, Henry opened the way for it to become the language of diplomacy, of trade, of entertainment – a truly international language of Hollywood and Hinglish, of shares and Shakespeare. As historian Malcolm Richardson says, “Henry’s legacy to the English language was more fruitful to his people than his legacy of military glory and conquest, which soon crumbled in less able hands.”
More fruitful to Henry’s people, and to the estimated 1.5 billion English-speaking people around the world today.
Rewilding the language…
On reading Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, his father observed that he was “rewilding the language” with words ancient and local in danger of being lost forever. Words like slomp: to walk heavily, noisily (Essex). And droxy: decayed wood (Cotswolds). Eminently lovable words as rare and rich as truffles under English oak.
“This book has been coming for as long as I’ve been writing,” says Macfarlane. “I have been collecting these words for a decade or more, in the same way you might pick up pebbles on the beach. It’s been a long time in the walking and the writing.”
And well worth the waiting.
“Lincoln’s great skill was to speak simply. He searched for language that was spare, colourful and accessible to all,” says Martin Kettle in an article on the great orator of Gettysburg.
“He liked it dry, clear and cogent, but he liked colloquialism too. As Harriet Beecher Stowe put it, Lincoln’s language always had the “relish and smack of the soil”. An aide tried to get him to withdraw the phrase “sugar-coated” from a speech once, on the grounds it was undignified. Lincoln would have none of it. He was also a great pruner: the Gettysburg address, perhaps the best-known political speech in English of all time, is less than 300 words long and took as little as three minutes to deliver.”
Earthy eloquence at a hundred words per minute – we could do a lot worse than aim for this in all our communication.
Ciao ciao tot ziens…
I recently came across a lovely phrase that would be a worthy addition to our ever evolving English language: tot ziens! As bright and breezy as a brisk cycle along a coastal dyke, it’s the Dutch way of saying: see you!.
One of the great strengths of English is that it embraces no end of new words and phrases, leaving it up to the people to decide whether or not to keep or discard, combine or refine them. That way we’re invariably spoilt for choice when picking le mot juste.
So ciao ciao tot ziens – welcome aboard the good ship English.
The power of rightly chosen words…
While visiting recently one of my favourite Parisian haunts, Shakespeare & Company, I found in the discount boxes outside a copy of Our Language by Simeon Potter. Four euros and an enjoyable chat with the bookseller behind the counter later and it was mine to leaf through at my leisure.
I didn’t have to go far to find the treasures within. From the opening paragraph:
“The power of rightly chosen words is very great, whether those words are intended to inform, to entertain, or to move. English is rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan means of communication… Let us all join freely in the quest and let us all share gladly in that intellectual joy of linguistic exploration which is ours for the seeking every day of our lives.”
Wise and encouraging words from 1950 by way of a mighty fine bookshop on the left bank of the Seine.
The secret law of writing…
Prompted by its inclusion in Michael Skapinker’s list of non-business books to inspire managers, I reached for my copy of The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (another mighty fine book on writing given to me by my Dad):
“It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music merely by keeping the rules…
The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns less the arrangement of words than the choice of them. “After all,” said Lord Macaulay, “the first law of writing is this: that the words employed should be such as to convey to the reader the meaning of the writer.” The golden rule is to pick those words and to use them and them only. Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves. Mathew Arnold once said: “People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.””
So, melding Macaulay’s first law with Arnold’s only secret, the secret law of writing is: Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can for your reader.
The wrong kind of unreadability…
Who owns English in a global market? asks Michael Skapinker in this week’s FT. The short answer is: no one, and everyone. Neither native speakers nor the many who have adopted English as a lingua franca (ELF), but both.
Thankfully, we have no real equivalent of the Académie Francaise stunting our language, just a few hundred million English speakers around the world keeping it very much alive and kicking and moving with the times and places.
Our wonderfully open and democratic English welcomes all comers – from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or should that be ridiculositous. In Democracy Has Bad Taste, the first of his Reith lectures, Grayson Perry recounts how an Art Forum editor said of a previous encumbent of her job that ‘English wasn’t her first language, so during her tenure as the editor, the magazine suffered from the wrong kind of unreadability’. Apparently her International Art English (IAE) wasn’t quite up to scratch. Her IAWhat? A particularly impenetrable form of art institution speak, designed to cultivate the seriousness of serious art and sounding like nothing so much as “inexpertly translated French” according to Monsieur Grayson. Witness this, again c/o of the great Mr Perry quoting a Venice Bienalle wall text: “Affectivity remans a central access in contemporary Uruguan artisitic production…”
Quintessentially Ridiculositous English (QRE). Don’t you just love it.
Beware the lumbagain…
Great to see that BBC2’s short story competition for children had around 90,000 entries. Including Cloud Boy, a rather brilliant tale that turns raindrops into people, written by my daughter Gilly :).
Great to see also that these young authors share The Bard’s predeliction for inventing new words, adding to the richness of our lovable language. Words like lumbagain – a ghost who makes people dull and boring. What a wonderful twist on the grand tradition of scary spooks, and what a fantastically fitting word for said ghost – a mighty fine combination of meaning and melody. Imagine one lumbering after you, gaining ground surprisingly fast…
Beware the lumbagain!
The essential qualities of good style…
I’ve been browsing through another excellent book on writing, inherited from my Dad:
It’s full of great guidance, not least when it comes to the Essential Qualities of Good Style. As Pink and Thomas say, “Style is the expression of personality.” It’s how you get yourself across in your own way, not just clearly but characterfully.
So what goes into a good style? Pink and Thomas identify five “positive qualities which are exhibited by all writing of the highest quality”: clearness, simplicity, strength, idiomatic writing and rhythm and harmony.
It would be difficult to find a handier handful.
Think well, write well…
“People who think, well write well,” wrote advertising legend David Ogilvy. These and other wise words come from The Unpublished David Ogilvy, according to City A.M.’s Marc Sidwell, who I’m cheered to read sees “clear English as a critical business tool”.
There’s a lot of meaning packed into the word ‘well’ here – the sense both of words that are well crafted and well intentioned. As Marc Sidwell points out, “Oglivy’s passion for clear and honest words” echoes George Orwell’s brilliant articulation of the mainline connection between clarity and morality in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
It’s not enough for your words to sound good, they must be good. Euphony and ethics should go hand in hand. Good English is good business.
Musick to my ears…
Picking up on the apparent importance of knowing your “its” from your “it’s” when applying for jobs, the FT’s Michael Skapinker touches on the lovably liquid nature of English: “English has always changed. It is a permanent referendum. If enough people start regarding “its” as the contraction of “it is” and “it’s” as the possessive then that is what they’ll eventually become and everyone will write them that way.” My money’s on the gradual disappearance of the apostrophe, driven by the evolving influence of texting and other bite-sized digital communications and the power of context to help clarify: it’s often easy to see whether you mean “its” or “it’s” thanks to the surrounding words, which in turn makes the mark less necessary.
As with punctuation, so with spelling. We now happily write “music” rather than “musick”, as in Samuel Johnson’s day. Three centuries on, music’s notes haven’t changed but its spelling has. That’s fine with me. In line with the inherently democratic character of my mother tongue, I’m happy to let the people decide, over time through their usage and abusage, how they want English to evolve. For one of the great good things is that we’re free to use our language clearly and characterfully for our own ends.
In this respect, I’m on the side of Michael Skapinker’s “affectivists” – a term “conjured out of Sir Ernest Gower’s book, The Complete Plain Words, which remains a superb guide to clear communication nearly 60 years after it was first published. The aim of writing, he said, should be to affect your readers in the way you wish them to be affected.” Musick to my ears.
“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.
The value of English…
While over a billion people have Mandarin Chinese as their first language the number for English is less than 400 million. Yet what my mother tongue lacks in volume it more than makes up for in value.
“Measured in billions of pounds, Chinese is ‘worth’ four hundred and forty-eight billion, Russian eight hundred and one, German one thousand and ninety, Japanese one thousand two hundred and seventy billion, English four thousand two hundred and seventy-one. English is the buyers’ and sellers’ language, the stock language of the market,” says Melvyn Bragg in his enlightening study The Adventure of English.
“And English is the first language among equals at the United Nations, at NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. It is the only official language of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the only working language of the European Free Trade Association, the Association of Baltic Marine Biologists, the Asian Amateur Athletics Association, the African Hockey Federation…while it is the second language of bodies as diverse as the Andean Commission of Jurists and the Arab Air Carriers Association.” English is in short the world’s language of choice when it comes to sharing ideas and information across countries and cultures. The ultimate international language. The language of connection.
So what’s the source of its power? The value of English lies less in its political, economic or historical associations than in its inherently open and evolving character. English is freely adopted around the world and happily adapted and enriched by all who embrace it, with new words and turns of phrase being added all the time – from bamboozle to bishy barny bee, from wig wag to wiki. In so doing, this eminently lovable language grows in value with the world.
Royally good advice on clarity…
I recently came across my grandfather George Hanson’s copy of The King’s English, published in 1908 and signed and dated 1917.
A hundred years on, the opening words of Chapter 1 continue to get to the heart of what it takes to achieve the core of all good writing – clarity:
“Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.
This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:
- Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
- Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
- Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
- Prefer the short word to the long…”
This guidance has echoed through the ages – in William Strunk, Jr . and E. B. White’s seminal The Elements of Style, in George Orwell’s six rules of effective writing, and in The Economist Style Guide as elsewhere. But HRH King George V, courtesy of his compilers H.W. and F.G. Fowler, got there first when it comes to laying the foundations of clear writing. Of course, as The King’s English implies, clarity is a necessary first step but by no means the end of the journey. What my granddad’s book calls “the more showy qualities” I call character – the essential build that at its best turns good writing into great writing.
Choosing language to reflect character…
“Language signals not education, but character: not what you know, but who you are.” So says Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at UEA, in an article sparked by the admission of “innit” and other neologisms to the latest edition of the Collins Scrabble Dictionary.
Language lives through people and changes or dies with them and the readiness of my amazing mother tongue the English language to flex and grow with the times is one of its great strengths.
We might not like all the new words and ways of talking that emerge but we should welcome each and every one to the family. That way, we have a much richer resource with which to cherish and exercise our freedom to choose the language that best reflects our character. When you look at it that way it’s simple, isn’t it.
According to a review of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, the English language has a uniquely cheerful ratio of positive to negative emotional terms: about 60% happy to 40% sad. For German, the ratio is a glum 28% to 72%, while for Chinese it’s an even gloomier 22% to 78%.
Doesn’t that make you feel as merry as a pismire (1643)?