Why writing clear content sometimes means embracing your inner Anglo-Saxon

Sometimes it’s easy for us to miss the little details.

Take your UK passport, for example. You’ve probably carried it around with you hundreds of times. But when was the last time you really looked properly at the front of it?

If you take a look at it now, you’ll see that at the base of the shield – just by the feet of the lion and the unicorn – there’s some text.

Dieu et Mon Droit.

Or God and My Right, in English.

Wait. What? Why is it written in French?

To answer that question, we have to go back to a date that we all remember from school — 1066.

The arrow that changed the English language forever

When Harold Godwinson took an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings, it didn’t only result in England being conquered by a Norman king called William and the Tower of London and other imposing castles being built.

That arrow changed the English language forever, too.

French became the official language of England after 1066. It was used by those in power in the royal court and in the legal system. That’s why historic shields of the UK such as the one that adorns the passport today still come with messages written in French underneath.

And the fact that French was used by those in power helps to explain the legacy of the French language in modern English.

A lot of imported French words have an Old-English (or Anglo-Saxon) synonym. Think about enquire and ask, for example. They mean pretty much the same thing, don’t they? But enquire, the French word, denotes a certain amount of prestige and formality that ask simply doesn’t have.

If you were writing a speculative email to show your interest in a role at a company, you wouldn’t write to ask. You’d write to enquire.

The fact that French-origin words sound more formal to us today is a result of hundreds of years of those words being uttered by Dukes and Lords, while the more informal Anglo-Saxon words – such as poor little ask – were used by the peasants.

Try not to sound too clever

So, what does this history have to do with copywriting?

Well, the legacy of English effectively having lots of formal and informal synonyms can still impact on our writing today.

Think about when you sat down to create the content for your website or marketing materials. I’ll bet that somewhere, deep inside your subconscious, a little voice piped up to tell you that what you were writing didn’t sound clever enough. It didn’t sound authoritative enough.

Hmm, perhaps I should use some more formal, authoritative words to show just how impressive and clever our brand is.”

Nice try subconscious voice, but this is a mistake.

Trying to sound clever with the content that you write is often counter-intuitive. As the famous copywriter Robert W. Bly said, “write simply and you’re the reader’s friend. Write pompously and you’re a bore.

The best copy tends to be clear, simple and to the point. And it just so happens that the majority of the simple, short words that exist in English are the Anglo-Saxon ones.

Ask still tends to resonate with more people than enquire does.

You need to create content in a voice and personality that fits your brand. When you try to sound overly clever, what you write doesn’t tend to sound like you anymore. Instead, it can sound generic. And generic isn’t going to attract the ideal customer who you’ve decided will love what your brand offers.

What you write has to mean something to them.

Embrace your inner Anglo-Saxon

The point here isn’t to avoid using French or Latin origin words, of which there are thousands. That’s impossible. And the beauty of modern English is the variety of words that we have to choose from.

But it is important to understand that the history of the English language can still be felt today.

The words that we associate with power and authority in the 21st century are the same words that were used by those in powerful, authoritative positions nearly a thousand years ago.

Today, the best route to sounding authoritative isn’t to write in an authoritative-sounding way. Instead, it’s by communicating clearly and simply about what it is that you offer and your thoughts on the market in which you operate.

Have a look at the headlines below, for example. Which sound clearer and more simple to you?

  1. Five tips for buying your first home in London // Five pieces of advice for purchasing your first property in London
  2. How to find the right answers to your customers’ problems // How to discover the appropriate solutions to your customers’ problems

So, remember the next time your subconscious voice tries to convince you that you need to sound smarter, sometimes it pays to embrace your inner Anglo-Saxon.

Tom Cross is a creative copywriter and content strategist based in London. He works with brands to ensure that their content is clear, easy to understand, and resonates with their ideal customer. Find out more, here.

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