• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The Spectator's literary editor likes to have his rules and ignore them too

Illustration/Getty Images

"The internet is seen as the enemy of everything that’s literate and literary and important. I think that’s absolute bollocks," says Spectator literary editor Sam Leith.

Sam Leith is fond of pricking pedants. The author of a new book about how to write well argues that we live in a more language-rich era than ever before and paying attention to the audience is far more important than perfect grammar.

Did we really need another book on how to write?

The idea was to do a how-to book that was more practical, applying the idea of how to persuade in writing to your day-to-day life. It’s a sort of hidden companion piece to [Leith’s 2011 book about rhetoric] You Talkin’ to Me? I also wanted to try to find a third way, avoiding that deadlocked row between the anything-goes brigade – the descriptive linguists – and the people who are absolutely outraged when anyone puts a comma in the wrong place. Write to the Point doesn’t have the virtue of uniqueness, but I hope I go about it in a unique way.

RelatedArticlesModule - Spectator Sam Leith

Because of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and blogs, people are writing in one form or another more than ever, right?

I’m a great proponent of that view. This whole idea that language is going to the dogs goes back to Caxton. There’s a default declinist idea that the culture is becoming illiterate, that 50 years ago everyone knew how to read and write and spell and was engaged with written culture and nowadays they’re not. The internet is seen as the enemy of everything that’s literate and literary and important. I think that’s absolute bollocks, because the internet is primarily a text-based thing. Obviously it has images and everything else, but you text in language, people are blogging, and more people than in previous generations have white-collar work in which language is part of their jobs. So in a way, I think the idea that pop culture is killing literacy is absolutely upside down.

What we’re getting used to, which actually makes literacy more important, is a whole range of registers and styles. Everyone is having to learn to master the informality of the Instagram post or sounding right on Twitter or in blogs. They’re writing much more in the quality of email – more spoken registers but in written language, too – as well as the more formal styles you use for a letter or a company presentation document.

There was a brief period when you might have complained that children weren’t reading any longer, which would have been between the invention of television and the arrival of the internet. I don’t know if they had a point, but that was when that lot panicked over literacy vanishing or going into reverse. But now, television has been substantially presented with competition from all these text-based things. Teenagers were always on the phone and watching television, and they weren’t really writing each other letters or reading books. But now the opposite is true: they’re mostly ignoring the television because they’re busy texting. So I think we’re in an era more richly saturated with language than we ever have been. The language is changing at the same time, and it’s changing in ways that make people of a certain generation and style of thinking quite uncomfortable.

Sam Leith. Photo/Getty Images

To write clearly is an essential courtesy, and to write well is to give pleasure to your audience.

Yes. I hope I’ve written clearly. I tried to do a similar thing in the rhetoric book: make it useful in some way and well-sourced. I spent time in the British Library cross-checking the rhetoric book and then slathered it with a whole bunch of jokes about South Park. I tried to do the same thing this time. [Henry Watson] Fowler [who wrote the famed A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926] is often funny. There’s a practical reason to be clear and entertaining: if people’s attention spans are not going down, there’s more demand on them from other things. Everybody’s always looking to virtually swipe left on your writing, so if you want to keep someone’s attention, you want to be giving them something, make it worth their while.

It’s still good to have an idea of the general conventions of punctuation and grammar to improve your confidence as a writer – but perhaps also to know that many of them are superstitions?

I’m slightly trying to have my cake and eat it. When I delivered it, my publisher said, “You’ve said there are no rules; here are the rules.”

Knowing that in general there is no arbiter, no referee sending you off if you get a comma in the wrong place, is quite a freeing thing. But at the same time, we need to recognise that these are associated linguistic conventions, that they’re of their time, there’s not anything intrinsic in them, but they’re facts on the ground. By and large, people in formal standard writing will tend to put an apostrophe in a particular place. Your audience is going to react to your writing a certain way. So you want to do things in a way that accords roughly with the conventions of the day.

Did you know most of the conventions before you began writing?

I had a pretty good grasp, having been pretty well educated in a formal way [Eton and Oxford]. I’ve been writing about writing for most of my working life. I know where to put commas and have a pretty good ear, but I had at my right hand the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, an enormous, [1860-page] formal, scientific book of linguistic terms of how language works. I would say, “I think this is the rule for modality or whatever.” I’d then go into the Cambridge Grammar and look up the relevant section. The idea was to check that my jokey description was acceptable by the likes of that book.

If you had to cut your book down to a few key points?

No 1 is baiting the hook, or going to where the audience is. As Frank Luntz, the American pollster, says, “It’s not what you say; it’s what people hear.” When you’re writing, you’ve got to be thinking about how it’s going to go with any particular audience. If it’s a wide audience rather than a specialist one, use simpler vocabulary; you only ever exclude members by using a Latinate polysyllable. Think about tone of voice, cultural references, and ask, “What does the audience want from me?”

You also talk about awareness of tone, sound and rhythm, and preferring concrete language.

There are some ideas we can’t reach without abstraction. But there’s a high cost in terms of cognitive load. So being quite concrete, having quite concrete images, having stories and narratives, really helps you. Clever politicians don’t start with statistics but with, “Let me introduce you to little Kelly, who is suffering from blah blah blah disease.” A human story, a human face. And then they allow her, whether truthfully or not, to stand for something larger.

People say to avoid the passive, but the good Lord gave us the passive for a reason. It has plenty of use in the language and often it’s the clearest thing to use. But as a rule you get more action and it’s easier for people to decipher if something’s in the active voice. Minimising the cognitive load on your readers makes them less tired and more likely to continue reading. You do that by keeping your sentences relatively short and also by structure, by right-branching. Which is a fancy way of saying make sure that your subject and your verb are close together, and your object is as near to the left-hand side of your sentence as possible.

Is it harder to persuade people in a highly partisan world?

Not necessarily. Persuasion is as important as it ever was, if not more so. You look at, say, the ferociously divided politics in America at the moment, and the reason there are hordes of Pepe avatars spewing out Trump propaganda as against hordes of people retweeting, say, Keith Olbermann or Joy-Ann Reid or Louise Mensch, is that [the avatars] have been persuaded of something. They’ve been persuaded of some very different things and they’re now ferociously at each other’s throats as a result. That’s a result not of the fact that persuasion isn’t happening, but that it’s happening in a much more disaggregated way.

There was never a complete golden age but there have been times in history, particularly through most of last century, when before we had the internet there were fewer voices and we tended to have more in common. The national conversation was a handful of conversations that overlapped and responded to each other. We’ve now got this situation where, with media and blogging and the internet, you can spend your whole life in a particular bubble, as they’ve been called, where you bypass the mainstream media altogether. You’ve got millions of different conversations going on but they aren’t really talking to each other at all. People are becoming harder to persuade in the sense that the conversation is becoming more polarised. Positions have become more entrenched. And I don’t have any ready solutions for what you do about that. I wish I did.

You note that, because of the internet and maybe society, we are writing more personally and conversationally. Is this a good thing?

It is what it is, an observable fact about our society. I don’t think it necessarily means we’re all more friendly. Where I take a view on it is that always you need to try to be aware of what sort of register you are using. Because if we’re not paying attention, the register we’re using for one thing will bleed into another. So, rather than switching neatly between a formal application letter for a job and an email to a friend, each has some different register it needs to adopt. My advice in the book, and it might just be me being of my generation [he’s 43] and might get outdated, is that if in doubt, particularly in a professional context, err on the side of being a bit more formal without being starchy. Because nowadays there are plenty of people who will not mind at all if the email equivalent of a cold call from a stranger pops into your inbox and says, “Hi! How was your weekend? Man alive, what about this weather!” But there’s a significant percentage of people who would still think, “This is a bit presumptuous. I’d like a Dear Mr …” Better quaint and a bit stuffy than “Who is this teenager up in my face?”

It’s very easy to get language wrong using social media, isn’t it?

Social media almost has the opposite problem, hasn’t it? Because the codes move so quickly and they’re so contagious. You see that everyone seems to be doing this one thing and you copy, and it’s already moved on and you look like your dad dancing.

You write about passive being the “favourite of the mealy-mouthed”. Then there are things like the use of “refute” to mean “deny”. Are people using words to weasel away?

One of the points of the book is that lack of confidence – fear – is much more often what makes writing pompous or stiff or contorted than anything else. Because people feel that it’s very exposing to write plainly and think it’ll sound very professional if I use lots of long words and passive constructions. Then there’s the legalese thing. The classic one is “mistakes were made”: people like to use the passive when they’re trying to avoid responsibility for something. “We acknowledge that mistakes were made in this corporation and these mistakes have been learnt from” seems safer than saying, “I screwed up. I’m really sorry.”

As for “refute”: people are attracted to what they think are fancy words. I think in 10 years’ time the distinction between “refute” and “deny”, which is a useful one, will probably have vanished. Again, it’s worth remembering what those distinctions are, because there still are a lot of people out there who get disproportionately almost annoyed at what they see as misuse of a word.

And because people have so much of their identity bound up in language use, so much of pedantry, it seems to me, is people reassuring themselves that they’re high-status and intelligent and educated, and they know the distinction between enormity and enormousness or decimate and annihilate. They would judge people negatively who were using these words wrongly because they think, “This person’s illiterate or stupid” or whatever, when in fact they may be none of those things.

But it’s still worth knowing the distinction, because there will still be people in your audience who will go, “I don’t think you mean ‘refute.’” I tend to think, don’t use a word unless you’re fairly confident that you know what it means.

You suggest that the misuse of “decimate”is no bad thing.

It’s sort of telling that the things that pedants get so hung up on are often things that are incredibly marginal. Things like “decimate”. It’s not like it removes a useful word from the language. It’s been a thousand years or so since anyone decimated [removed one in 10 of] a Roman legion. And things change. I think there’s no great loss of life if “literally” is an all-purpose intensifier that has come to mean figuratively. If what you actually meant was clear from the context, the pedants wouldn’t be in a position to complain that you got it wrong.

As an editor, is your duty to a writer, preserving their voice, or to a reader if the writing isn’t quite up to it?

My primary duty is to my reader. Writers who are kind of half-good are often the ones who are most precious about their work. I often think it’s a sign of a writer at quite a high level who can appreciate a decent edit. They’ll be annoyed by a bad one. I hope I abide by this; that if somebody edits my work and improves it, I’m always immensely grateful.


This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.