A short note on long words

June 7, 2012

A few weeks ago I was approached by Emphasis, a UK-based business-writing training company, to write something for their website. The article was published today, so I thought I’d mention it here for anyone who cares to read it.

It’s called “Does word length matter?” (not my title, but I like it) and the article is about the use of long words, short words, plain words and fancy words, right words and wrong words, half-known words and inkhorn words.

In short: it’s about words, and how to pick the best ones when writing for business – though it may be of broader use and appeal than that. There’s no commenting facility after the article, but any thoughts you might have are welcome here, as always.

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Inkhorns in the past, apostrophes in the future

February 2, 2012

I have two new posts up on Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, The fashion for inkhorn terms, continues the discussion of plain English (the blog’s theme for December and January) and looks at some of the reasons language can fail to achieve its main purpose: communication.

In particular, I look at the once-popular ornate style of writing that

combined elaborate syntax with a multitude of rhetorical devices and what became known as “inkhorn terms”. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and inkhorn term is what Michael Quinion calls “a term of gentlemanly abuse” that was applied to fancy words borrowed from classical languages during the gradual shift from Middle to Modern English. . . .

In The Story of Language, C. L. Barber writes that in early Modern English “the trickle of Latin loans becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge”. But many Latin and Latinate loans that were attacked as inkhorn terms gradually slipped into the standard vocabulary and are now thoroughly integrated into English . . .

Read on for examples of inkhorn terms that survived and ones that faded.

Next, Apostrophe apostasy returns to the story about Waterstones’ apostrophe that I recently addressed on Sentence first. I speculate on why people get so upset by trivial changes to a company’s style, and I ponder what the future might hold for this troublesome punctuation mark:

Minor matters of style and punctuation have a way of agitating people, and worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is also a convenient scapegoat through which people can express their displeasure and unease with big business, youth culture, societal change, the anticipated end of civilisation . . . .

We may see a trend towards using [the apostrophe] less where its absence doesn’t appear too odd. Well-known companies deleting it from their names will contribute to this shift, as will its omission from much informal communication in text messages and online chat, especially where character count is a constraint.

This post prompted some fascinating comments, which you can read here. If you’d like to browse my older posts at Macmillan, you can go straight to the archive.