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Creeping Britishisms

We’ve all heard about ‘Americanization’ — the influence of the US on our own lingo. But perhaps we weren’t as aware of the influence that our creeping ‘Britishisms’ have on US English.

It’s easy to think that the early American settlers took the English language with them, Noah Webster tinkered with it, and that was it. However, the reality is that the two variants are much more fluid and interwoven than that. Indeed, Bill Bryson talks in his book, Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language, of how modern American English is actually a closer reflection of old English than modern, UK English itself.

US English — more British than you think

Some of the grammar rules I learnt at school are now considered old fashioned here in the UK, but still very much current in the US —handy when I’m asked to write in US English! So where I would still use title case in American headlines, I would most likely use sentence case for UK clients. And the serial comma I wrote about recently — something we associate with American English — is also called the Oxford comma because its use is standard for the Oxford University Press.

Recent reports have highlighted some interesting examples of modern-day language creep. According to this BBC article , words that we think of being typically American, like ‘diaper’ and ‘fall’ (the season) actually fell out of favour in the UK in the 19th century. And in a follow-up article , we learn that Americans are starting to adopt ‘autumn’ in favour of ‘fall’.

Writing for US readers

So where does this leave you if you’re writing for a North American audience? Our advice is to tread carefully when using colloquialisms, particularly when writing business collateral, but to keep your finger on the pulse in these times of person-to-person communications. If in doubt, you can always get your copy professionally localised so you know it will speak directly to your readers.

And if you want to take a deeper look at how we’re influencing our transatlantic cousins, Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad, has devoted himself to writing an informative and entertaining blog on the subject.

Selling on features? Why some copywriting rules were made to be broken

OK, it’s time to make a confession: although I now make a living out of copywriting, I wasn’t always a natural. I started out as an enthusiastic engineer who liked to write, and it took me a long time to understand that selling purely on features is a no-no — they’re nothing without an associated benefit.

“It has a red LED!” I’d scribble enthusiastically.
“So what?” the sales director would reply.
“You can see it’s switched on!”
“So what?”

You get the picture. I soon learnt that if a feature didn’t make money, solve a problem or otherwise improve quality of life for my customers, it was most probably not worth writing about at all.

When it comes to copywriting, it doesn’t hurt to learn a few rules, especially when you’re starting out, but then come the exceptions. As Tom Albrighton of ABC Copywriting points out, Apple’s famous tagline for iPod, “1,000 tunes in your pocket” is most definitely a feature, not a benefit.

The benefit of music on the go is something we are all familiar with — those of us of a certain age were introduced to the idea by the Sony Walkman. Of course, nobody would be seen dead with a Walkman now, hence the beauty of the iPod fitting in your pocket. Apple didn’t need to spell it out to us, we worked it out on our own.

Of course, it’s not just the Apples, BMWs and Rolexes who can afford to imply the benefits of their products. Working in B2B and end-user communications for IT companies, we often find it’s completely unnecessary to explain that 2TB of storage will allow you to well… store more stuff!

What all this highlights is the importance, as always, of knowing your audience. One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for them to understand the benefits of your product or service — if they already do, great, if not, the skill is to whet their appetite without sounding condescending. And if that’s something where you could use some help, then do please call us on 01628 622187.

The dangers of auto-correct and spell-checkers

We’ve all seen funny screenshots circulated of auto-correct howlers; many have had me crying with laughter. Most of them are too rude to publish here but you can always visit Damn You Autocorrect — but, you have been warned!

While some are undoubtedly faked, they do show us why we need to be really careful, particularly with phone auto-correct functions that don’t even check with us first. How many promising personal, employer-employee or client relationships, have been derailed by hitting the ‘send’ button too soon?

Office grammar checker or human editor?

One bugbear of mine is the way my phone treats ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ — it seems to interchange them quite randomly and as a copy editor, this could reflect quite badly on me.

And just yesterday, Microsoft Word asked me if I’d like to change, ‘That’s why…’ to ‘Those’s why…’ — I declined, but at least it checked with me first!

Those Office grammar checkers are improving. As well as the red and green squiggles, we now have the blue squiggle that says, “Are you sure?” and I’ll confess, I get the blue squiggle sometimes. It’s not that I don’t understand the difference, but sometimes I’m typing so fast, my fingers work on auto-pilot.

autocorrect_02

They don’t catch everything, though. In the example below, the repeated word has been highlighted, but the spell-checker hasn’t taken the context into account to suggest the correct spelling (it’s ‘hear hear’, by the way).

autocorrect_01

I love the fact that technological spelling and grammar checkers are helping people express themselves in ways they never thought possible, and these tools are improving all the time. I use them as part of my proofing checklist, but they will never entirely replace human editors and proofreaders, who will give your copy that extra sparkle.

Creeping Britishisms

We’ve all heard about ‘Americanization’ — the influence of the US on our own lingo. But perhaps we weren’t as aware of the influence that we have on US English.

It’s easy to think that the early American settlers took the English language with them, Noah Webster tinkered with it, and that was it. However, the reality is that the two variants are much more fluid and interwoven than that. Indeed, Bill Bryson talks in his book, Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language, of how modern American English is actually a closer reflection of old English than modern, UK English itself.

US English — more British than you think

Some of the grammar rules I learnt at school are now considered old fashioned here in the UK, but still very much current in the US —handy when I’m asked to write in US English! So where I would still use title case in American headlines, I would most likely use sentence case for UK clients. And the serial comma I wrote about recently — something we associate with American English — is also called the Oxford comma because its use is standard for the Oxford University Press.

Recent reports have highlighted some interesting examples of modern-day language creep. According to this BBC article , words that we think of being typically American, like ‘diaper’ and ‘fall’ (the season) actually fell out of favour in the UK in the 19th century. And in a follow-up article , we learn that Americans are starting to adopt ‘autumn’ in favour of ‘fall’.

Writing for US readers

So where does this leave you if you’re writing for a North American audience? Our advice is to tread carefully when using colloquialisms, particularly when writing business collateral, but to keep your finger on the pulse in these times of person-to-person communications. If in doubt, you can always get your copy professionally localised so you know it will speak directly to your readers.

And if you want to take a deeper look at how we’re influencing our transatlantic cousins, Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad, has devoted himself to writing an informative and entertaining blog on the subject.

Trim the fat: simplifying abbreviations

Continuing with our theme of “things we were taught at school”, abbreviations are another area where we now differ from our colleagues in the US. Take ‘for example’, for example. I was taught to shorten the Latin ‘exempli gratia’ to e.g. Not only that but if the sentence continued, you’d have to add a comma:

e.g.,

It just looks so messy! Fortunately, thanks to some gentle coaxing by my colleagues at HN, I’ve managed to let those full stops go. We write eg and ie and it’s fine, although we’re careful not to overuse them as they can make your writing looked rushed.

Here are some more examples of how we differ from our North American counterparts:

US UK
U.S., U.S.A, U.K. US, USA, UK
a.m., p.m. am, pm
Mr., Mrs., Dr. Mr, Mrs, Dr

At HN, we are always looking for ways to simplify our copy, in favour of readability. But don’t forget that US readers will still look on it as a grammar error if you leave out the punctuation, so make sure you keep your audience in mind when you’re writing.

Are your serial commas tying you in knots?

I’ve been doing a lot of localising work lately: translating US English to UK English and making sure it reads as though it was written by a Brit. And interestingly, I’ve discovered that some of the grammar rules I was taught at school still apply in the US but not here — title case, for example. One rule that is still very much used this side of the pond though relates to the serial comma.

So what is a serial comma?

The serial comma is that comma that comes at the end of a list, usually before the word ‘and’, sometimes before ‘or’ and occasionally before ‘nor’. I can still hear my teacher berating us: “NEVER, EVER use a comma before ‘and’!” Well, we were five so she probably thought we could tackle the exceptions in year 2.

If this comma is a US convention then, why is it also known as the Oxford comma? Interestingly, the Oxford University Press style guide has called for its use for over a century. So should we be using it or not?

To comma or not to comma?

As always, our advice is to check your/your client’s style guide first. In the absence of a specific instruction, not using the serial comma can help your copy to flow and should be considered for UK English copy. There are exceptions though:

  • When you have more than one ‘and’ in the list, that final comma can make all the difference to understanding. Using the Oxford Dictionary’s own example, leaving out the serial comma in the following list would lead to confusion — just how many bishops are we talking about?

The bishops of Bath and Wells, Bristol, Salisbury, and Winchester

  • We also need to use a serial comma when the last list item isn’t a list item at all. Borrowing from the Oxford Dictionary again:

Potatoes, swede, carrots, turnips, etc. candles, incense, vestments, and the like.

The text should be lively and readable, and have touches of humour.

So we can’t just rip out serial commas wholesale — you need to read each sentence carefully to make sure it will still convey the same meaning without the comma. If your serial commas are tying you in knots, give us a call — we can help!

What can we learn about writing from someone who died a hundred years ago?

“Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English.”

So said master stylist Mark Twain, way back in 1880. Even though he would have celebrated his 177th birthday last November, Twain’s views on good writing still sound utterly contemporary. What’s more, they can be applied to content produced for any medium, including plenty that didn’t exist when he was alive.

A particular stylistic bugbear of Twain’s was the over-use of adjectives — what he referred to as the “adjective habit” and compared to a vice. We agree with Twain that for adjectives to have impact, they need to be used sparingly:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable.”

Twain also commented on the thorny issue of how to put forward an idea as succinctly as possible (we suspect he’d have been a dab hand at blogging and tweeting!):

“Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

And let’s not forget the value he placed on rigorous editing to improve content quality:

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

In today’s world of commercial pressures and time constraints, we may not always have the luxury of starting over in this way. But careful planning and a robust review process will help you get your message across as effectively as possible — whatever the publishing medium.

Photo via pbs.org

Hyphens and dashes — when and how to use them

Do you know the difference between these three lines?
– – —
They may look very similar but they are used quite differently. As we move away from more traditional forms of punctuation, such as colons and semi-colons, towards the more informal dash, it’s important to understand the differences.

– Hyphen

This is the shortest of the three and it is used in compound words:
High-speed Internet access

– En dash

The en dash (CTRL+minus on your keyboard) is used as an alternative to the word ‘to’ when separating amounts, or dates. It is often used in place of the em dash, particularly as applications often auto-correct a hyphen to an en dash. It is called an en dash because it is roughly the same width as the letter ‘n’:

From 1995 – 2012, the number of people accessing the Internet rose from 0.4% – 33% of the world’s population.

— Em dash

The em dash (CTRL+ALT+minus on your keyboard) is used as a generic dash to distinguish separate phrases in a sentence where previously, you may have used commas, colons or semi-colons. Roughly the width of the letter ‘m’, it is the largest of our three dashes:

As of 2012, more than 2.3 billion people — a third of the world’s population — have access to the Internet.

You’ll have noticed that I’ve used spaces around the en dashes and em dashes. This style is most prevalent in the UK but if you are writing for the US market, you will most likely close up those spaces. Always:

  • Check how the company you are writing for uses dashes and spaces before you start
  • Use hyphens and dashes sparingly, otherwise they can clutter up your copy
  • Consider using traditional punctuation, such as colons and semi-colons, for more formal writing

 

Sentence case, Title Case or ALL CAPS?

From 1957 to 1967, graphic designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert undertook an ambitious project to redesign the UK’s road signs. One of the first things they discovered was that a combination of upper and lower case letters would be more legible — and so, easier to read at speed — than conventional upper case lettering.

The same applies to marketing and sales copy. A time-poor audience is more likely to stumble over, or simply not read, content in capital letters — so we only use them when absolutely necessary.

British_road_signage Motorway_sign

British road signage used before the adoption of the Kinneir-Calvert system (Left) and Motorway sign designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert (Right).

Sentence case vs. Title Case

At school, I was taught how to write in title case — which words to capitalise, which to leave lower case — but in the UK, at least, it’s a dying art. Much more commonly, companies are adopting sentence case — capitalising the first word of a headline only — because it’s clear, simple and unfussy.

If you do need to write in title case, this is how it works:

  • Capitalise principle words (nouns, adjectives and verbs) and the first word of the headline
  • Leave prepositions (‘in’, ‘to’, ‘under’, ‘over’…), articles (‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’) and conjunctions (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’…) lower case

Example: The Last of the Mohicans

Sentence case works just like a sentence — you capitalise the first word and any proper nouns:

Example: The last of the Mohicans

SO WHAT ABOUT ALL CAPS?

In the 90s, when plain-text communications were still common, we would use all-cap copy to distinguish headlines from body text. This is rarely necessary nowadays and readers may even perceive that you are shouting at them — not a good impression to give. Unless you are designing a film poster, or your client specifically requests it, you can safely give all caps a miss.

Word origins: when Latin just won’t do

Having battled with English, German, French and Latin at school, learning Spanish as an adult was an absolute joy. It’s one of the Romanic languages, with strong Latin roots but also a heavy Arabic influence. It’s incredibly logical and almost 100% phonetic which means that once you learn the rules, you can get reading straight away.

English is described as Germanic but it’s fair to say it’s a melting pot of many other languages due to successive invasions from abroad and our more recent imperialistic history. Although this makes English more irregular and more challenging to learn, it also makes it a language rich with meaning and nuance. Half the fun of writing can be choosing which word out of ten possibilities is most appropriate for your audience. The tricky part is to rein in your creative tendencies when plain speaking (or typing) is required. And it’s often said that when this is the case, Germanic and/or Old English words are most appropriate.

When to rein in your creative tendencies

For example, one expression that often falls foul of the editor’s pen is “prior to” with its origins in the Latin “prae” meaning “before”. And there we have the reason that “prior to” often has to go—the Germanic “before” (vor) is more widely understood and is just one word.

Of course, it all depends on your audience. If you’re writing a white paper, opinion piece or article, “prior to” may be fine. If you’re writing a safety manual, however, it needs to be understood by as many readers as possible. In that case, I would opt for “before” every time.

Sometimes, the Latin word is just too… well… grandiose (Latin, grandis). When was the last time you traversed the road for example? The word “traverse” comes from the French “travers”, which itself comes from the Latin “transversum” meaning to lie across. Interestingly, the word “cross” also came from Latin (crux), but long before the Normans brought “traverse”.

Choosing the best alternatives

As someone who loves the richness of our language I’m certainly not advocating ridding ourselves of those more elaborate words; that would be a tragedy. But when I write for business and consumer audiences, I always ask myself, “Which alternative would be understood and appreciated by the greater number of readers?”

As the Plain English Campaign says, “It’s not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar.” It’s about reaching your audience using language they will understand.