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Bill Bennett

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Tag: grammar

Language has rules. If you use them well, readers will come back for more.

When brands choose funny typography

A handful of companies like to see their names written entirely in upper case. Gigabyte and Asus are two that spring to mind, there are others.

Companies can do what they like. Journalists and editors shouldn’t use the upper case for these names.

We’re journalists, not brand managers

How Asus, Gigabyte or anyone else presents their company name in their own material is their affair. They have no right dictating how others treat their names.

If we gave in, it could be the thin end of the wedge. Next they will insist we print their names using a particular font or Pantone colour.

Breaking the rules

In written English proper nouns and the start of a sentence each get an initial capital letter. Think of them as signposts to help readers understand text.

Companies names are proper nouns. A single initial capital letter tells the reader that word is a name, not a description or verb.

Of course the fabric of our language doesn’t fall apart if we occasionally break the rules. Good writers do it all the time. On the other hand, communications would fail if people just wrote things how they pleased.

Mid-word capitals

Upper-case letters often appear in the middle of product names like PageMaker.

This is not a good practice and not every publication goes along with it. For example, The Economist would change PageMaker to Pagemaker.

Sadly the mid-name-capital train has left the station. Spell checkers insist on the capital M in the middle of PageMaker. It would be hard and fruitless to campaign against this. I’ve given up that fight as there are more important battles elsewhere.

Apple’s iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad are also problems. Apple’s brand power is so strong even the mighty Economist gives ground on these brand names. Editors are confused about how to treat these words if they fall at the start of a sentence.

If iPad why not GIGABYTE?

Good point. It is a question of signposting.

A word written entirely in upper case disrupts reader comprehension. This is precisely why companies want their names written in capitals. They want their brand to leap out of the page even if it undermines the rest of the words.

For that reason alone, journalists should resist.

There’s another signposting reason. Writing words in capitals is reserved for acronyms and initialisms. Good editorial style demands initialisms that are pronounced as a word, not spoken as a string of letters, like Nato should be treated as ordinary words.

Writing a word like Gigabyte in capitals signposts it should be pronounced as a string of letters.

Like shouting

Online writing conventions say words written in capitals indicate shouting. Brands think having names in capitals is like shouting them out. Their goal is to maximise their brand exposure.

Our job is to ease the flow of information to the reader, putting roadblocks, any roadblocks, in the way is bad.

Capitals make text harder to read. Use too many and it becomes hard to spot the proper nouns and sentence starts.

Update: Signposting pronunciation

One point I missed when writing about brand names like iPhone, iPad and so on is they are pronounced as eye-phone, eye-pad. There’s a logic here that he lower case i followed by a pronounceable name signposts pronunciation.

A thesaurus with short words

Rules number four and five in my Writing for the web in 300 words say:

Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true. Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.

Finding simple words isn’t always easy, especially when you are in a hurry.

A thesaurus helps. I sometimes use Microsoft Word’s thesaurus when I’m stuck. There are online thesauri and, whisper this because I’m now a paperless journalist, there are two on my bookshelf at home.

And then there is Ironic Sans’ Thsrs.

Thsrs is a short word thesaurus designed to help Twitter users find shorter words to fit inside the 140 character limit. Thsrs is a great tool for digging out a simpler, easier-to-read alternative, option, choice.

Helen Sword’s Wasteline Test is another useful tool to tighten your writing.

Writing for the web in 300 words

All you need to know about web writing in under 300 words. From my Wordcamp NZ presentation.

  1. Start straight away. Don’t waste time warming up.
  2. Reduce barriers between your ideas and your audience.
  3. Write clearly. Use readily understandable language. Be unambiguous.
  4. Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true.
  5. Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.
  6. Go easy on adjectives and adverbs.
  7. Spellcheck.
  8. Try to imagine your reader – an ordinary bloke or woman. Write for that person.
  9. Use ‘be’ verbs sparingly to make your writing more interesting. Use them even less in headlines.
  10. “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Most people think it was Mark Twain; it was Blaise Pascal, a French Mathematician.
  11. Keep sentences short; up to 20 words. A 15 word sentence limit is better.
  12. Keep paragraphs short; usually one to four sentences. Only use more if you need to.
  13. Use plenty of full stops and line breaks. Use lists and bullet points. Be generous with crossheads (secondary headings).
  14. Highlight keywords with bold or italics.
  15. Writing is story telling.
  16. Summarise your story in the headline.
  17. If you write an introduction use it to tell readers what your story is about. Expand on your ideas in the following paragraphs.
  18. Write so you can cut the story at any point yet readers have the maximum information.
  19. Aim for short and crisp. Online readers tire after 200 words and start dropping out at around 300. Keep most stories below this length although you can write longer pieces.1
  20. You can find longer explanations of all these points elsewhere on this site.

My presentation from WordCampNZ in 300 words.

  1.  While this is still true, there are good reasons to write more than 300 words. Google prefers longer posts and readers are less scared of scrolling down than they were in the past.

Pin facts down with concrete nouns

Good writing is direct, clear and precise. It sends your thoughts and ideas directly to readers. Concrete nouns keep your writing on track. They are unambiguous and specific. Use them to pin down facts and inform readers.

Nouns are concrete when they refer to something you can touch, smell, see, taste or hear. They are things you sense directly.

Banana, chair, piston engine, trumpet, pterodactyl are all concrete nouns.

I think of concrete nouns as crunchy, but they could just as easily be squishy, smelly, loud or colourful.

Abstract nouns less useful

On the other hand, abstract nouns are things you can’t form a picture of. They are ideas, conditions and qualities, such as courage and happiness.

Many abstract nouns started life as verbs or adverbs, but become abstract nouns with suffixes. So fascinate, becomes fascination, credible becomes credibility and so on.

If you report on events steer clear of abstract nouns. If you write reports, blog posts or anything for business avoid them.

Abstract nouns are useful when you want to generalise or when writing about ideas. They are useful in fiction or poetry.

But for work related writing they make it hard to figure out exactly what the writer means and are open to misinterpretation. That is the opposite to good business writing.

Full stops beat commas

typewriterWhen training journalists, I joke that Americans use more commas than British journalists because they are rich and can afford the extra ink. The same applies to Irish, Australian or New Zealand journalists.

You often find long, comma-packed sentences in American newspapers. They don’t make for easy reading.

Use plenty of full stops instead — periods if you’re American — and spare the comma.

Keeping track of who does what to whom is hard in long, comma-laden sentences. Breaking sentences into smaller units of meaning makes writing easier to follow.

Commas for understanding

Only use commas where they aid understanding.

Writers often underrate the comma’s use as an aid to sense.

Some Americans put commas between all clauses and sub-clauses. Grammar checking software tells you to do the same. Ignore the nagging. Even when these tools are not using American rules, they often dance to American usage.

British-trained writers avoid them between short clauses at the start of sentences.

Americans also use commas before and at the end of a list of items. This is sometimes called the Oxford comma. That subject opens a fresh can of worms.

In Britain the last comma only gets used when one of the sequence items includes an and.

Some experts say Americans are moving towards British patterns and commas are now less common on both sides of the Atlantic. Let’s hope so.