Writing Wrongs – Guest blog from Jonathan Staines
Teaching was great fun. Badly paid fun. For six years I taught ‘A’ Levels in English Literature and English Language in a Further Education college. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. It was only years later, when running writing and ‘tone of voice’ workshops in the business world that I realised how badly English seems to be taught in schools.
Many workshop attendees come into the room burdened with misinformation that prevents them being better writers. Bad teaching, boring lessons and carelessly wielded red pen can obliterate people’s confidence. Such experiences make people timid about using their own language.
“My spelling is terrible. I can’t write,” is typical of the kind of thing people say. Or “We did Chaucer and Thomas Hardy at school. It put me off English for life.” Or “I’m from Newcastle. My English is terrible.”
I feel I have a duty to help people ‘unlearn’ some of the nonsense that they’ve absorbed about English over the years: much of what I do in writing workshops is dispel myths. Ironically, I believe many misconceptions about English are to do with being English – or British, for that matter. Our responses to our language are entrenched with attitudes about class, intelligence, manners and sophistication.
For so long, if we didn’t speak or write in a particular, highly prescribed way, it would be very difficult to be socially mobile. Almost everyone in power ‘spoke posh’. Just listen to BBC announcers from the 1920s to the 1990s. We all aspired to speak ‘The Queen’s English’. My father (born in 1941) had elocution lessons as a child. He recently tried to convince me that the ‘right’ way to pronounce ‘grey’ is ‘grair’. He probably thinks that the ‘correct’ way to pronounce ‘house’ is ‘hice’.
From an early age, it’s been drilled into to Brits not to break the ‘rules’. Many of us find it very difficult to write in a way that is close to how we think and speak. In my experience of writing workshops, when you ask people to write a sign to appear in a public place, it’s often of the “Would patrons kindly refrain from leaving comestibles in the vestibule…” variety.
Attendees at writing workshops are often surprised when I reassure them that despite their poor spelling or where they grew up, they may still be a skilled wordsmith. When I also explain that it’s absolutely fine to start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’; to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition, for many it just doesn’t compute. They need not fear being tracked down by some sort of ultra-pedantic SWAT team.
When I run any kind of writing workshop, I try to transmit my love of words. I try to reassure people that there’s much, much more to being a skilled writer and speaker than knowing how to use a semi-colon.
Shakespeare famously wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit,”. So with that in mind, here are a few of the other things I try to impress upon anyone who’s interested in understanding English and using it more effectively.
1. Writing and speaking are two very different things. The ‘rules’ are different for each. No one can hear an apostrophe.
2. Being able to spell or correctly position the apostrophe does not automatically mean you are good with words.
3. Try to write like you speak. It means your writing will be more natural.
4. Creativity with language is more important than knowing the ‘rules’ – although understanding how language works (ie. grammar) is helpful.
5. Pedantry is not the same as being a lover of language.
6. Short words are often better than long ones – although knowing long ones is important because words contain ideas.
7. There’s no such thing as ‘The English Language’. There are many Englishes and they are continuously changing. Language is a living thing.
8. The meaning of any language usage always depends on its context.
9. Words aren’t always the best way to communicate. However, when they’re used well, they are very powerful indeed.
10. Spell checkers don’t work. Learn to look things up.
About the Author:
Jonathan Staines is a brand consultant with a specialism in language. He has worked in the UK and Global Brand teams for Orange and EE and for brand and advertising agencies.
His professional writing includes: published fiction, music journalism, radio adverts for British Airways and Audi and naming numerous businesses. He now writes regularly for Campaign.
If you have something to say about brand language and are interested in writing a guest blog for us then contact Chris.