25th June 2015

Correct English: Doing Justice to Your Audience

I read a rather interesting article earlier this week about a memo sent by Lord Chancellor Michael Gove to Ministry of Justice staff containing what has been called by some in the media “an eccentric” set of grammar and style rules for departmental correspondence.

I have to admit that, from my avowedly descriptive linguistic standpoint, some of Mr Gove’s prescriptive recommendations seem rather unnecessary. The guidelines, for instance, deplore the use of “impact” as a verb and the word “ensure” in any context, advise against beginning sentences with “however”, and insist on spelling out contractions like “doesn’t”. These rules are subjective, a matter of personal preference, rather than objective guidelines on producing a sentence that native English speakers will understand and consider to be correct usage.

However, while some of Mr Gove’s golden rules for ministerial correspondence seem pedantic, plenty of others offer excellent advice for writers, and especially those creating PR and marketing content for brands. His suggestions that writers should avoid any terminology or phrasing that could be considered “pompous” and keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum are particularly useful when developing copy to engage target audiences and build a relationship with consumers. Pretentious language undermines this aim, creating the impression that the brand is aloof and doesn’t care about its customers, while the over use of adjectives and other modifiers can over-complicate sentences, making their meaning less clear and impeding readers’ comprehension.

Mr Gove also recommends using the active voice, rather than the passive as much as possible. This is precisely what I advise when drafting press releases. A sentence such as “we offer translation services for businesses” is much more decisive than the passive “translation is just one of the services offered” and emphasises the role of the business, helping to reinforce its brand image in the eyes of readers.

Whatever you think about Mr Gove’s insistence on his team following his linguistic golden rules, grammar and the language you use do matter. Everyone has their own preferences and pet peeves when it comes to what they read and write, so it is important that PR and marketing content takes this into account. The use of correct English can minimise the risk of readers being distracted from brand messaging by personal linguistic bugbears, while writing in the right register for the target audience can help engage potential customers and strengthen their relationship with the brand.

I always try to stick to a few basic rules when writing PR content, like correct grammar, plain English and active sentences. But, if I ever come across a grammatical point for which there is no objective right answer, I know I can consult my trusty Economist style guide.

By Michael Wood, senior B2B copy writer