English the Right Way

The English language is joyful–and exasperating. It provides so many ways to say what you mean, and all of them are correct. Or in other words: No matter what you want to say, there are dozens of ways to say it right.

So here are four guidelines to help you make sure you are using English correctly:

  1. Recognize the limits of words. An engineer once asked me for a single word that meant cost-effective, high quality and efficient. No such word exists. If he tried to create one, he would be asking customers to read his mind. If you are not sure whether a word exists or you are using it properly, look it up in a dictionary. Online dictionaries are as helpful as paper ones; just make sure you rely on a dictionary and not a spell checker because spell checkers will happily let you use the wrong word, as long you spell it correctly.
  2. Follow the rules of grammar. Grammar gives writing its spine. The Little, Brown Compact Handbook is a good source. The glossary and index alone are worth the price. Do not rely on online grammar checkers. They will send you in the wrong direction; they question perfectly grammatical sentences and promote howlers like using “that” instead of “who.”
  3. Listen to your ear, and write like you talk. This is a harder rule to follow if your native language is not English. Read everything you write out loud. If it sounds stilted, pompous, long-winded and confusing, then it probably is stilted, pompous long-winded and confusing. When you talk to your customers, you use clear, familiar language that lets your excitement about your product or service shine through. Good writing is good talking. If you need help, turn to The Elements of Style by Wlliam Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. In less than 100 pages, this classic book will transform your ideas about style.
  4. Limit yourself to one or two trusted reviewers. Because English is so flexible, heated debates arise over a single comma or a single synonym. If you find yourself fighting your reviewers, then check the sources suggested above. Or find new reviewers. Writing by committee is impossible. If you must work with several authors to finish a project, place one of the authors in charge of the whole–that’s the only way to ensure consistency and clarity from page to page.

Perhaps the most important writing advice is to know when to stop revising. With the flexibility of English, you can second guess yourself into stagnation. But your website, blog post, brochure or success story can’t start working for you until you send it out.

If English is driving you (and your reviewers) crazy, you have one more resource you can count on: Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications (write at twriteplus.com). We’ll help you discover the best way to say what your customers want to hear.