This is the first in a series about style and usage of written English. I write it to help my own writing, but if it helps others, that is even better. It will appear on Tuesdays by 12:00 UTC in the coming weeks.
Each post will be about one subject. It will not cover it in depth, but it will include the most important points.
Good writing is more than style and usage: it takes experience and a certain gift. But like spelling, style and usage are the easy things to improve.
Why good writing matters:
- It is easier to read.
- It reaches more people, all things being equal, and affects them more deeply.
- It makes clear thought possible.
I agree with Orwell that language affects thought. Writing well and thinking clearly are two sides of the same coin.
Writing for the Web in English means you are read all over the world, like it or not. Therefore writing in an international English matters.
That said, sometimes you have to favour the English of one region over another. The closest we have to a universally accepted form of English is the written English of London. That has been true for over 500 years and it is still true today. Even in America they still accept and understand the sort of English heard on the BBC or read in The Economist.
On points of style and usage I follow:
- The Economist
- “Modern English Usage” by H.W. Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers (1965)
- “The Cambridge Guide to English Usage” by Pam Peters (2004)
I consult The Economist first, Fowler’s for depth and Peters for the facts of how English is now used in the real world. I write my findings here in this series. It is what I will follow in my own writing.
Fowler is great, but becomes less useful as time goes on. Much has changed in forty-some years. We now have the Internet and political correctness. But he is still a good read not just for his wit that cuts straight to the point, but also to see that English can be written a lot more simply than is the custom these days.
Peters is the opposite: she has all the latest numbers on how English is used all over the world, but she has no strong inner sense of what makes good English.
The Economist is in the middle and therefore best: it is current, well-written English that is meant to be read all over the world. That is the kind of English I want to write.
Enough of The Economist is on the Internet that you can use a search engine to find out how it uses a given word. That is priceless.
The Economist also has its style guide on the Internet. But do not trust it blindly: it will sometimes say two different things, while The Economist itself will do a third. If in doubt, I follow the third.
In this series:
- rules for writing
- parts of speech
- number and measure