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The other day, somebody accused me of being “such a copywriter” about something or other. I think I’d used the word “malapropism” and nobody else in the room knew what it meant. My being called “such a copywriter” is not an insult, you would think – given that I am one. And yes, it was a friend and they were saying it playfully. But the fact is, it was said with the subtext that I was deliberately using language in a pretentious way just to show off.

Not at all. I used the word precisely because it was the most accurate one to use in the context, and it’s shorter than saying, “that’s just the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound, especially when creating a ridiculous effect.” (Thanks, Collins Dictionary.)

And, as any decent copywriter will tell you, making things sound complicated is the polar opposite of what we’re meant to do. On the contrary, we make things easier for the layperson (or at least, the target audience) to understand. Yes, we know the rules of grammar and, by and large, we stick to them. Or we break them knowingly and for effect.

And there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “and”, by the way. Nor is it necessary to have a verb in every sentence. Far from it.

But the other day, I was unfortunate enough to work on one of those police point-of-view TV shows – the ones where they film cops apprehending some desperados on the M11 for driving without insurance or such like. I don’t mean to sound specifically anti-police now, but it is actually far more often the case that these sorts of people try to throw their weight around by using overblown language in order to either impress and/or intimidate.

Quote: “Sir, I need you to produce the documentation pertaining to the licencing of this vehicle.”

Good lord! In any other world (at least an English-speaking one), that simply translates as, “Can I see your driving licence, please?”

Another quote: “We pursued the suspect to his premises, whereupon we established that he was indeed housing the aforementioned assailant.”

Right, so you mean you followed the guy home, and that’s where he was hiding the other criminal, right?

The thing is, these people DO have the tools to say what they mean without trying to sound cleverer than they are or need to be, giving themselves some misguided sense of self-importance. Just as airline cabin crew need only remind you, the passenger, “to take everything with you when you leave,” rather than “ensuring that you remove all personal effects from the cabin upon disembarkation.”

Of course there is a time and place for complex language. But at the risk of giving away any copywriter state secrets, my top tip to the world in general is (unless you’re writing for an academic audience) if there’s a simple way to say something, say it that way. The fewer syllables and words per sentence the better.

If you try to glam up your language unnecessarily – and you’re not Stephen Fry – you might risk sounding like a bit of a buffoon.

by Ashley Morrison

Ashley is a copywriter, editor and blogger

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