Lessons from LINGUISTICS

Posted on June 2, 2017 in Copywriting

I did a couple of courses on writing recently, which may sound rather strange and unnecessary for me, as a writer – but they were from a linguistics perspective (given by Dr Michael Kranert).

Here are a few things I found interesting:


Men and women … they use language differently

Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus.  Maybe, or maybe not … but the book points out they use language differently:

  • Clearly, language and communities matter more to women, who are more verbally skilled than men.  Men’s goal in using language tends be to instrumental (getting things done) whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational (about making connections to other people).
  • Men’s way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women’s is cooperative, reflecting their preference from equality and harmony.
  • These differences routinely lead to miscommunication between the sexes, with each misinterpreting the others’ intentions.


We acquire and adjust our language 

People acquire and adjust their communication skills (and vocabulary) in order to match in with the people around them, what are called ‘communities of practice’.  Although the research applied to nurses and office trainees, it matches my view that I acquired a particular writing style when working in local government – and then had to shrug it off when I became a journalist.

Children in particular are aware of variations in language, and speak differently in order to ‘fit in’ (how they talk in the playground, versus how they talk to adults).

In the same way that headlines are used to engage with an audience, we use the weather as way to break the ice with people that we meet – not really to talk about the weather at all!


The history of legal writing – ‘Don’t blame the lawyers’ 

According to the author David Crystal (Investigating English Style), the language of law: ‘is perhaps the least communicative, in that it is designed not so much to enlighten language-users at large as to allow one expert to register information for scrutiny by another’.

One feature that makes legal language more complicated is its pairing or words (e.g. breaking and entering… null and avoid, etc.), which results in longer sentences and potential confusion. This practice dates from the days when English stood alongside French or Latin here in the UK, and therefore the word for both languages had to be used in legal texts.

And finally, ‘right justified’ text was introduced in legal texts to prevent people from inserting words … and changing the meaning.