Always told at school never to split your infinitives? Or never to begin a sentence with and, but or because? Despite what those pedantic profs said, it’s time to liberate your writing from the stuffy rules of days gone by.
Slavish devotion to the strict rules of writing might be expected in an academic essay, but today’s business world hinges on clarity and persuasiveness. As a modern, customer-focused business, it’s more important to convey your message to potential customers in a natural and unfussy style, than it is to abide by archaic, misguided dictums.
Don’t listen to your teacher!
And so to conjunctions. Why are we told it’s wrong to start a sentence with and, but, because or so? Probably because they’re seen as ‘joining words’ – words that can only straddle two separate clauses.
If that’s the case, no one told the translators of the King James Bible (“And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth…”) or indeed Shakespeare, who frequently used conjunctions for adding emphasis. And it’s not just scribes from days of yore who can get away with such heinous crimes. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the acknowledged bible for today’s professional writers, derides this “persistent belief”, explaining that an initial And is “a useful aid” as part of a continuing narrative.
The war against split infinitives is equally long and bloody. According to some, you shouldn’t split a particle (such as to) from its accompanying verb (let’s say, go) with an adverb (like boldly). This belief has its roots in the Latin basis of English, where the particle and verb formed a single, indivisible word. But, as we all know, language evolves.
As former Oxford English Dictionary editor Robert Burchfield argues, no writer should “suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable.” Broadsheet newspapers concur. The Guardian’s in-house style guide is unequivocal: “It is perfectly acceptable to sensibly split infinitives, and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound awkward.” Do you see what they did there?
A third alleged rule discourages sentences ending in prepositions such as after, at, by, from, in, of, on or with. The idea that a clause such as “The table the cat jumped from…” (as opposed to “The table from which the cat jumped…”) deserves six-of-the-best dates from the 17th Century quill of lauded man of letters John Dryden, infamous for picking apart the work of his contemporaries. His phobia of prepositional endings was passed down through the centuries, before eventually facing the wrath of one Winston Churchill.
Churchill famously had no truck with this laughably outmoded notion, once responding to the writer of an overly-grammatical memo, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put”. The rule of thumb here is judge each case on its merits. What sounds better?
The business world is not renowned for the crispness of its copywriting, but there are some simple techniques we can learn to sharpen up both our own business writing and other people’s.
Written communication is a vital part of virtually all business marketing, online or offline. Whether it is a website, video clip, brochure or newsletter, it all comes down to words on a page.
So it is ironic that for an industry where words play such a vital role in meeting client needs – from legal advice to property consultancy to financial information – professional services in particular has such a reputation for boring, long-winded writing.
Confident business copywriting
A lot of it comes down to confidence and habit. Professional services has for so long been characterised by wordiness and bluster, it is incredibly easy to pick up bad habits. It takes a certain confidence to fight back against the fog of verbosity, rather than simply following the accepted – and often expected – industry norms.
There are a few relatively simple techniques, however, that can help make even the most pompous copywriting shorter, friendlier and more readable.
Active business copywriting
One of the main techniques either for improving your own copywriting or when editing somebody else’s, is to prefer the active voice to the passive voice. But what exactly does that mean? And what difference does it make?
Copywriting in the active voice, as the name suggests, is all about action. It is about structuring your sentences so they focus on the action that is occurring; the thing doing the action rather than the thing that action is happening to.
The active voice is the basic sentence structure of English: x does y to z, or subject > verb > object.
- The boy [subject] kicked [verb] the ball [object].
- The corporate finance team [subject] increased [verb] its turnover [object] by 20 percent.
- The senior partner [subject] announced [verb] several lateral hires [object].
Writing in the active voice is generally a good thing. Copywriting that is active tends to be more engaging, more direct and easier to follow. You get the sense of movement and action – the boy kicking the ball, the corporate finance team increasing its turnover or the senior partner announcing the new lateral hires.
Avoid passive business copywriting
In the passive voice on the other hand, the sentence structure is reversed so the object of the statement comes first, instead of the subject. The focus of the sentence is therefore on the recipient of the action, rather than the thing doing the action, like this:
- The ball was kicked by the boy.
- Turnover was increased by 20 percent by the corporate finance team.
- Several lateral hires were announced by the senior partner.
It is a subtle but very noticeable difference, and it has a big effect on our copywriting. The focus is on the ball, just sitting there until it is kicked, rather than on the boy running up to give it a whack. There is not the same feeling of movement. As the name suggests, the passive voice is more static, more indirect, and has a whiff of brown-trousered bureaucracy about it.
As well as being more dynamic and engaging, copywriting in the active voice is more concise, too. In the examples above, the active versions use between 20% and 30% fewer words than the passive constructions – and more concise business writing is a worthy aim in itself.
You may not feel like a natural wordsmith, but it needn’t be the end of the world.
Not everyone has a working vocabulary the size of Shakespeare’s (29,000 words, according to some estimates). In fact, the average Brit stumbles along with a mere 4,000 or so – with possibly a few more on a Friday night after a few bevvies.
The good news, if you’re keen to expand your vocabulary, is that it doesn’t have to be boring. These days, you don’t need to go to night school or plough through dusty ol’ text books to broaden your linguistic horizons.
Most people with a smartphone or Facebook account will be aware that addiction to Scrabble-variant Words With Friends (WWF) is spreading to all four corners of the globe. Even the great and the good are getting in on the act, with film star Alec Baldwin hit the headlines when his reluctance to turn off his phone got him slung off a flight.
The difference between WWF and Scrabble is small but crucial. In WWF, the game intervenes and warns you if you’re trying to play an invalid word before you submit your move. This allows you to try many variants of letters to generate the best possible score on each turn. Along the way you can pick up some great new words.
Here at Wordsworks Towers, we’ve always got a game or two of WWF bubbling away in the background when we’re not engrossed in our business copywriting. In the last few days, newly-discovered words have included:
Just for fun (or is it because we’re cruel?) we’ve jumbled up the definitions here. See if you can match them up with the right words, above. You’ll find the answers below.
A) a large, greenish New Zealand parrot
B) a variant of ‘truth’, probably of Scottish origin
C) a large, white-spotted, tailless rodent of Central and South America
D) an American term for junior college
E) a plate, usually made of silver or gold, especially the plate on which the bread is placed in the Eucharist
F) the European polecat
G) a type of caffeine, especially in tea leaves
H) a natural manure composed chiefly of the excrement of sea birds, found especially on islands near the Peruvian coast
I) to sap strength, vitality, or power from; to weaken or subdue
J) a low palm-tree, or the south-eastern corner of the desert (of Biblical origin)
If you fancy liberating your lexicon or enlarging your lingo, you can find out more about joining the Words With Friends bandwagon here.
Meanwhile, you can highlight the invisible text below for the answers…
Here in Britain, home of the Empire and all things historic, we like to think we exported all the finer things around the globe – most notably, Her Majesty’s English.
So it may come as a surprise when you delve down into our lexicon and learn that many of the words we assume come from these shores are in fact derived from a land far away – India.
Back in the 19th century, two men with the unlikely names Hobson and Jobson began compiling these words into a special book, called the Hobson/Jobson dictionary.
A brief peruse of “the HJ” (as our business copywriters here at Wordsworks lovingly refer to it) reveals several non-surprises: pashmina, khaki, sari and jodhpur are, predictably, all Indian words.
But here are 10 more words which you might not realise are no more English than Mahatma Gandhi himself…
Avatar: a computer alter-ego, yes, but also the incarnation of a Hindu deity.
Dungarees: from the Hindi ‘Dungri’, a district of Bombay where the fabric originated.
Bungalow: from the Hindi ‘bangla’, a house of the Bengal type.
Gymkhana: from the Hindi ‘gend-khana’ literally meaning ‘ball house’.
Thug: formerly a group of professional robbers and murderers in India.
Doolally: military slang from Deolali, a town near Mumbai, which was the location of a military sanatorium.
Blighty: not just a British-sounding word but a word that actually means ‘Britain’, and yet it comes from the Hindi word ‘bilayati’, for foreign land.
Juggernaut: a large destructive force, from the Sanskrit ‘Jagannatha’, meaning ‘lord of the world’.
Polo: a sport so English it’s beloved by the royals, but it’s actually derived from the Kashmiri word for ‘ball’.
Swastika: okay, so you probably thought this was German rather than English, but no – it’s from the Sanskrit ‘svastika’, meaning, rather inappropriately, a belief in good fortune.
Greedy things, dictionaries. No matter how many words you stuff them with, they’re always hungry for more.
Yep, Samuel Johnson’s (above) baby just keeps growing fatter. Time doesn’t stand still and neither does language. The best dictionaries keep their finger on the pulse of modern vernacular by reflecting the way people speak.
The Oxford Dictionary of English has revised its editions throughout the noughties and beyond to accommodate words which would have been considered gibberish during the 20th century.
Here’s a selection of our dozen favourite recent additions, together with their definitions, just in case you don’t know your catastrophising from your chillaxing…
- Frenemy: a friend with whom one also has a powerful rivalry.
- Freemium: a web-based business where users can access basic services for free, but must pay for advanced features.
- Turducken: a roast dish of chicken. Inside a duck. Inside another chicken.
- Catastrophising: to put a massively negative ‘worst case scenario’ spin on a given situation.
- Deleveraging: selling your assets to reduce your debt.
- Soft skills: in a professional environment, personal attributes allowing you to work harmoniously alongside other folk.
- Staycation: cocking a snook to poor currency exchange rates by holidaying in your home country.
- Geoengineering: mechanical processes designed to counteract the impact of global warming.
- Defriend: snubbing a former contact on Facebook by excising them from your buddy-list. Ouch.
- Hikikomori: the tendency of adolescent males to avoid all social contact (a Japanese term coined in response to its internet and videogame-obsessed generation of young men).
- Chillaxing: a cross between chilling out and relaxing – alternatively known in some quarters as ‘taking a chill pill’.
- Buzzkill: a person or thing that has a depressing, negative or dispiriting impact.
Whatever linguistic leaps forward the coming decades have in store, our team of business copywriters at Wordsworks will stay abreast of language trends – just like we keep pace with evolutions in fashion, music and technology. After all, no one here at Wordsworks Towers wants to be labelled a ‘cheeseball’ – a person lacking in taste or style.