Free Coordinates…

For good communication…

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  • Published: Mar 7th, 2020
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Living in English…

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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.

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  • Published: Apr 12th, 2016
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Trusty and welbeloved…

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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.


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  • Published: Apr 10th, 2015
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Rewilding the language…

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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.

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  • Published: Mar 6th, 2015
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Earthy eloquence…

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“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.

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  • Published: Feb 2nd, 2015
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Ciao ciao tot ziens…

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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.

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  • Published: May 2nd, 2014
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The power of rightly chosen words…

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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.

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  • Published: Jan 7th, 2014
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The secret law of writing…

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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.

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  • Published: Oct 19th, 2013
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The wrong kind of unreadability…

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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.

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  • Published: May 31st, 2013
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Beware the lumbagain…

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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!

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  • Published: Jan 15th, 2013
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The essential qualities of good style…

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I’ve been browsing through another excellent book on writing, inherited from my Dad:

Written by M. Alderton Pink and S. Evelyn Thomas in 1924 and still in print, it combines “chapters on the elements of English Grammar and Composition with an exposition of the principles and characteristics of Business Correspondence.”

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.

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