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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A friend of mine was reading a print-out of some of my Wordcage columns the other day. ďToo damned colloquial,Ē he told me. ďToo many didníts and haveníts, too much Iím and youíve and heíd. Too many would-be sentences without verbs. Too many one-word interjections. Overdone. I wouldnít write like that.Ē All of which was pretty colloquial itself, and a fair example of the very things he was complaining about ó but in its proper place, colloquy, conversation.

I thought his criticism not so much overdone as misplaced. My own criticism of my prose style is rather the opposite: too many long sentences, often with too many interjections, in brackets or between dashes, in the middle of them. You can always make sense ó and you probably will ó of a sentence (for example, the one youíre now reading, if read it you do) that suffers from these faults. But they donít help: the sentence above would have been easier to understand if Iíd written You can always make sense of a sentence with those faults. And you probably will, if you read it at all.

If my friend had made that complaint, Iídíve had to agree. But colloquialism? Whatís wrong with that? Iídíve may be overdoing it, but itís exactly how Iíd pronounce the words I should have. Would spelling such phrases out in full really help? I donít think so ó and in some phrases it would add the usual ambiguity between I should meaning I ought to and I should used merely as the conditional of I shall.

Solemn words

As for the notion that any phrase between two full stops must include a main verb to be a genuine sentence ó well, itís dear to pedants, but itís poppycock. (And, just by the way, would that sentence have been improved by writing it is in place of itís? Not in the least, in my view. Which in turn itself is a seven-word phrase between full stops, with no verb, yet perfectly intelligible and in my view a sentence. And Iíll defend that use of which too, let pedants snipe as they choose).

Not that Iíd argue for colloquialism in all circumstances. There are many levels of language, written or spoken, and for some it is inappropriate. Statute law doesnít include words like itís or poppycock. Itís often poppycock anyway, and almost always would be less so if it used simpler language; but not of that sort. Solemn occasions mostly call for solemn words: the marriage service of the old Church of England prayer book begins with the words, Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God... and albeit that book is 350 years old, it is not only for that reason that we are isnít written weíre.

Sound advice

Those 350 years are, of course, one factor. Nearly all writing in the past was more formal than todayís, just as my style is than todayís text-speak (or do I mean txtspk?). Equally, there are people living in the past, and if you want to be hired to teach English in a school run by aged pedants (or me), youíd be wise to keep txtspk out of your job application. While if itís a research fellowship that youíre after, remember that in much of academe jargon, obscurity and professorships tend to go hand in hand.

But newspapers ó let alone by-lined columns in them ó are not academic papers, nor their readers mostly post-graduates. Too often we journalists are long-winded, at times pompously so. Many of us would benefit from six months in the British tabloid press, which has made a fine art of brevity and punch (even if, alas, of dishonesty too). And in any walk of life, keep it short, keep it plain and keep it conversational is usually sound advice. I often wish I listened to it more carefully myself.