Journalists, marketers and copy writers all need to get their point across simply and clearly, yet are often held back by a misconception of what makes ‘good writing’, a misconception which dates back to at least 1066!

I’m going to give you one simple tip on better writing, but before I do, I need to take a short trip into history…

The English language has one of the world’s richest vocabularies, borrowing from almost every other language on earth. English belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo European language family, brought to England by the Saxons after the fall of Rome. Most of the common words we use every day have come from this original language.

In 1066, one of the most monumental events in the history of England as a country, and English as a language, occurred with the Norman conquests. The French-speaking Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded England and became the new ruling class. While the English language survived in the fields and towns, French became the official language of government for hundreds of years, before English rose again.

By the time it did, it was a fundamentally changed language, borrowing hundreds if not thousands of words from French to express all sorts of things that old English didn’t have words for; legal words like attorney, justice and bailiff, government words like royal, peasant (and government itself!), words to describe foods like custard, mustard, mayonnaise and fork; the list goes on.

It’s (almost) impossible to write in modern English without using French-derived words; in many cases the French version of a word carries a slightly different meaning, eg white v blank, blank is derived from the French blanc meaning white, but cannot usually be substituted for the word ‘white’ in modern English. But there are also many examples where French-derived and English-derived words still exist side by side with more of less the same meaning.

Ever since 1066, the French-speaking court has been associated with prestige, and the more basic English language associated with the lower classes. As a result many writers assume that using more flowery French phrases is a mark of sophistication. The social connotations are so strong that many Saxon derived words for bodily parts and functions have long been unacceptable in polite company. I won’t list examples here, but please see this link if you’re not too easily offended. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-letter_word

Here endeth the history lesson.

Plenty of bad writing is full of long and unclear words in a misguided attempt to sound sophisticated.

Marketers and journalists need to take the opposite approach to ensure their writing is crisp, clear and readable. In order to achieve that, I recommend never using a French-derived word when an English one will do (if I wasn’t following my own rule, I could have said suffice then instead).

You don’t need a degree in linguistics to know which words I’m talking about, even if you were completely unaware of the history of the English language before reading this article. Most native English speakers can instinctively tell which words are the original, simple Saxon words, and which are the more flowery French ones. Here’s a few examples to prove the point;

Eat Consume
Talk Converse
Get Receive
Ask Enquire
Buy Purchase
Follow Ensue
Wise Prudent

 

Ten points if you guessed that the left hand column are the original English words!

In the end, you don’t need to know the history behind it, but the secret to clear, crisp and readable copy is to keep it simple. Always use the most direct word to get your point across.