What 1066 can teach you about good writing
It was pretty much my first job in fundraising. My art director and I were summoned to a review meeting with the first big charity we’d been allowed to get our hands on.
We all sat and reviewed the work, which I’m pleased to say had performed pretty well. But all was not rosy.
“The thing is” said the client, looking rather sour, “you keep asking our supporters to ‘fill in’ donation forms”. But <charity name> donors do not ‘fill in’ donation forms. They ‘complete’ them.”
This rankled me then.
It rankles me now.
The difference is, today I know why.
And to understand the difference you’ll have to come with me back to the Battle of Hastings. In 1066 the English we spoke was different – a kind of Anglo-Saxon/ Germanic hybrid. It was a sturdy, basic, muscular and very practical language, suited to people who tended sheep, ate apples from the tree and occasionally clonked each other on the head with sticks.
Then a Norman arrow came out of the blue that had ‘King Alfred’ etched on it, and everything changed.
Our Norman conquerors spoke an entirely different kind of language. It was Latinate – the root of modern-day French. It was complex, nuanced and conjugable. It was the language of the elite. The language of politics and law. The language of discourse, not doing. Of course, the two languages merged to become, with many additions, the English we speak and write today.
And that’s why, today, we have the choice of asking donors to ‘fill in’ a donation form – a solid, muscular piece of Anglo Saxon English. Or to ‘complete’ it – the more delicate, courtly, Latinate alternative.
Just fill in a donation form?
Or simply complete one?
Now that you’ve read this, and thought about it a bit, you’re armed with an informed choice. But if you want your writing to be simple, immediate and tangible, you’ll choose the Anglo-Saxon version. That’s because, as I said before, it’s an idiom rooted in the real world. In stuff you can hold. In basic activity. Or, to put it a better way, doing stuff. It’s why there are no French versions of words like ‘run’; ‘jump’; stand’; ‘do’, ‘make’. Or, indeed, ‘give’.
With thanks to other lovers of fine writing (or should that be good writing?) – in particular George Orwell, Alastair Irons and Ken Burnett.
* You were 25 times more likely to be murdered in mediaeval London than you are today. So there.