The missing link

The missing link

It’s heartening to see my old employer, the Financial Times, give such a ringing endorsement today of Orwell’s core principle – that clarity in language is synonymous with clarity of meaning. Not that Michael Skapinker’s FT piece was intended as such. Just that his clearly expressed view on the vital necessity for considered use of language exactly mirrors our own thoughts here at Orwell.

He takes a case now going on in the US where a missing comma has given rise to a legal dispute, with potentially serious financial consequences. But he identifies a problem much broader than the specific. He writes: “Some of you will already be pointing at the problem: children are not taught punctuation any more. They leave out apostrophes, commas and capital letters on WhatsApp, Twitter and other social media.”

While Skapinker takes an understandably relaxed view of this development – “people are fast learners…You learn a lot about writing from being misunderstood” – we think it would be better if they weren’t misunderstood in the first place. Grammar developed for a purpose; clarity of meaning and understanding. Disobey the rules of grammar – or twist them out of conventional recognition – and you will be misunderstood.

As Skapinker correctly argues: “The problem lies with writing that extends beyond a few sentences. People are not doing enough of it. I have been struck by recent letters from doctors, financial advisers and university professors, whose longer emails and letters have to be read twice to be sure of the meaning or whose spelling and punctuation leave you uneasy. If they are this sloppy with their writing, how careful are they with a scalpel or the allocation of your money?” It’s a rhetorical question. Journalists love to use that technique.

Sloppy writing is today ubiquitous. We see the evidence of this in many places that should know better. An organisation that delivers its messages in a slipshod fashion is not one that will get much attention, other than a quick dismissal.

On the other hand, an organisation that really cares about its use of language simultaneously demonstrates a much deeper care – that of respect for the intelligence of its audience.

Anyone can shoot off a message of 140 characters. The trouble is – anyone (and everyone) is doing just that, and thinks it is “communicating” as opposed to simply emoting.

Gary Mead, Orwell