And drawer rhymes with door...

I spend most of my creative effort on the written word, but as I write it I hear it in my head.

There is a class of words in English that presents difficulties to foreigners only when spoken; I call them bastard syllables - after the bastard sword, so called because it can be wielded in either one or two hands.

Most of these words are single syllables with a terminal British "r": here and everything that rhymes with here.

What make it special is the way that it is pronounced with two syllables in isolation or when it finishes a sentence, but can be pronounced with one syllable especially when the British "r" is changed into a US "r" when eliding ("hear it"). There's a good deal of variation in the use of the monosyllable form, but it is always obvious (to an anglophone) when it is wrong.

The same distinction is made in US English but you are much less likely to hear the same American use both mono- and di-syllabic forms.

Dora McKinley's song Sunshine contains the lines:

... the truth find your spirit here/for here's where the sun shines ...

The first "here" is a solid two syllables and the second couldn't possibly be more than one.

The bastard syllables aside, there are other words in English that are written as if they should be one syllable but are always pronounced with two:

  • whale, bail, fail, etc
  • smile, mile, etc (rhyme with "trial")
And one or two which are written as two syllables but pronounced as one - "drawer" (of a commode or sideboard). These seem to present the foreigner with less of a problem - especially the Frenchman, whose language is so full of letters that go unpronounced that some of them have become ghosts...


A Tale of Two Tailors

Theatrical costume is one of my sidelines. I'm handy with a needle and thread, and I've a modest collection of vintage sewing-machines. I've had the good fortune, partly in connection with this interest, to be able to discuss the tailoring trade with some of its more and less distinguished professionals.

The tailor produces good work because he cares about integrating two things above all; that his customer should be well dressed, and that his customer should look himself. Walk into a good tailor's shop, and when you walk out again you should look the same, only better. It helps, therefore, when the customer already has a strong sense of his own style; the good tailor works with that, to produce something that enhances the customer's own style.

As a long term relationship develops between tailor and customer, the customer's style will inevitably evolve, along with his experience, his tastes, and his body. The tailor will attempt to guide the customer towards what is, in his opinion, good taste, without infringing the customer's view of his own style and personality. Consequently, the customer's wardrobe changes as a delicate synergy of customer and tailor.

A tailor's definition of 'well dressed' is always "wearing one of our suits". A tailor cares about fashion only as much as his customer does. A tailor cares about creating the right impression only as much as his customer does. The only thing that the tailor cares more about than his customer is the quality of materials and workmanship. The customer need not know about either of these, assuming correctly that they will be taken care of by the tailor.

Nonetheless, there are customers who come in asking for the "latest thing"; asking for something that will "knock-out the ladies" or "blow the lads away" or "make me look like a gent". If the customer smells of money, the tailor won't mind too much, and if the quality of his work is appreciated, the tailor can turn a blind eye to the emptyness of the style.

However, he will always try to guide the customer to something that will suit him. Something that will enhance his natural qualities, rather than try to give him qualities that he does not have.

It isn't easy to write empty commercial twaddle. Badly written empty commercial twaddle is however often indistiguishable from the skillfully written variety due to the sheer emptyness. Our culture has helpfully provided us with the story of the Emperor's New Clothes and somehow we don't apply its lesson where we should.

The company that goes to a PR or marketing consultant generally expects the consultant to research the market and produce copy that reflects the market's expectations. This is fine, but most companies have real differentiators; their products and services have features that make them a better or worse choice, or a better or worse match, to any given potential customer.

All too often the product or company's character is hidden behind market buzzwords - whatever the current fad may be - and potential customers can neither choose between, nor even remember who is who.

Like a good tailor, the commercial writer should understand and communicate what makes the personal style and character of the company he writes for. He should take care to employ quality language with skill and discretion - the latter so that he does not allow his personal tastes to influence his work too much - and produce copy that characterizes the company by accentuating its best qualities and enhancing its personal style.


Canine Viscosity

10 years or so ago, I was working for a company that manages the logistics of property repossessions. I don't want to give anyone ideas, but it is not all that uncommon for the borrower (the owner who is unable to make his repayments) to borrow, or in extreme cases, hire, a big, noisy, aggressive-sounding dog.

Locksmiths and Bailifs (the usual attenders of repossessions) are by their own confession not dog handlers, and will usually call off the repossession until attendance by an RSPCA* officer or private animal handler can be arranged. This can take many weeks. It was not therefore uncommon to receive a message telling us that the repossession could not go ahead for this reason.

On July 26th 1999 I received the following message:

"The previous eviction appointment could not go ahead as there was a viscous dog in the property"

If you google for "viscous dog", you will get over half a million hits. It astonishes me therefore to find that there are no university departments, no private laboratories studying canine viscosity; there isn't even an entry on Wikipedia.

Maybe it's because fluid dynamics has a reputation for having a lot of difficult math. Maybe dogs with high viscosity, being slow moving, are not considered a problem, and therefore not worthy of study.

I think we should be told.

* The RSPCA is often descibed to Americans as "the British equivalent of PETA". This is only true in the sense that both are charities largely funded by private subscriptions. PETA is an animal rights organization; the RSPCA is concerned with animal care and welfare.



Professional writing ought not to be political or philosophical. In an ideal world, the writer should give his customer what he really needs.

This means that when your customer's readers are balanced, professional, educated, honest and liberal, the writer can be brief, clear, simple and direct. However, when your customer's readers are bigoted, ignorant, incompetent, self-serving, pompous, feckless, lazy or stupid, simplicity and clarity are not always the best policy.

I recently read (but I won't tell you where as the author is a friend) a press release telling the local press that the public library had increased its opening hours. My friend was paid to write that this was "enlarging the literacy opportunities of local community stakeholders".

On the one hand, I think every professional writer has a duty to encourage clear, simple familiar language that is easily understood by a maximum of the possible expected readers. On the other hand, we all have to eat, and if your customer is BIG PHARMA or the like, and his corporate chequewriters have an inflated opintion of their own intellect, and the only readers of your copy will be other BIG PHARMA corporate chequewriters, brownnosers and whatnot, there is really no obligation to write clearly, and indeed every motivation to write verbose, pithy, sexy and ultimately meaning-free text. (Nothing protects your customer from litigation better than lengthy, syntactically correct gibberish.)

At the same time, the four of you (I assume that's how many people read this besides me) will have noticed that I can be quite opinionated when it comes to wilful misuse of language. As such, as a responsible writer I propose to draw a line in the sand here:

An copy I produce that might fall into the hands of a member of the general public who might need to understand the message of the text will be clear and have a generally high meaning to word-count ratio.

If flattering your customer's (or his customers') inflated opinion of their own intellect gets your bills paid for goodness sake do it. If what you write might someday be needed by one of the poor saps that your customer (or his customers) ultimately get their money from, make sure the poor sap can get what he needs.