I came across the BBC News Styleguide today and, while its intention is to help those working in broadcasting, it’s a very interesting read for those of us who enjoy discussing the intricacies of the English language.
Reading the guide’s selection of superfluous words and phrases, in other words tautologies, brought to mind examples commonly used in advertising, for example ‘free gift’, ‘added extra’, ‘new innovation’ and even phrases like ‘be more of a man’. Of course these types of unnecessary and sometimes meaningless repetition are not just confined to advertising.
I hate to think how many times as an English lecturer I’ve read openings such as ‘In this essay I am going to write about…’. As William Strunk (the co-author of ‘The Elements of Style’) said, “Omit needless words… A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
The guide has great advice for all of us who use English, in particular that the most important rule of writing is “to know what you want to say”. While that seems obvious and most people would immediately agree, unfortunately it’s often not put into practice. People start writing without having a clear purpose or reason for writing, sometimes even hoping that by the time they reach the end they will have found it! Readers can clearly sense this lack of focus, so filling up a webpage with too much unnecessary text won’t encourage them to stay. We always need a reason for writing, and we need to understand why we’re writing before we start.
On a final note, the following quote, while talking about the use of English on television, can equally apply to any use of English. “Television is a medium of mass communication. When its practitioners can no longer use the English language properly they cease to communicate effectively and the whole thing becomes pointless.” (Christopher Dunkley, Financial Times)
The purpose of language, after all, is to communicate, so if we can’t get our message across clearly is there any point?
Now I’m off to look at The Times Style and Usage Guide!