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Why should we love Norma? 

William Safire was one of the twentieth century’s great writers. He was an author, journalist and speechwriter. He won the Pulitzer and was then on the Pultizer Prize Board. He wrote the speech Nixon would have given had the Apollo 11 astronauts stayed on the moon, with its poignant ending borrowing from Rupert Brookes: “For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever human”. And he wrote a New York Times Magazine column called ‘On Language’, which led to a book called ‘In love with Norma Loquendi’

“For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever human.”

William Safire

Who is this Norma? Actually, the question is what? 

Which brings us to Horace, a Roman writer and poet who died just before Jesus was born. One of the things he said was, “Consuetudo, jus et norma loquendi”. To paraphrase the translation, it means the correct use of a language is how it is used. 

That’s why a style book, with a list of the correct usage of words and phrases at a single point in time, is an irrelevance. As soon as style rules are written down, they are potentially obsolete.  

Word definitions change all the time. Brilliant, sick and literally are all words that mean something different now compared to a generation or two ago. Talking to a teenager can be a minefield of misunderstanding. 

It isn’t just words. At school, I was taught to not split infinitives. But that rule is only snobbery. It stems from the eighteenth century in England, when the middle class was becoming more literate and inventing rules to separate the educated from the uneducated. There are no split infinitives in Latin –  infinitives in Latin are only one word – so they decided there should be no split infinitives in English either. It was a rubbish rule then, as it is now. “To boldly go”, one of the most famous split infinitives, is so much better than the rather awkward “Boldly to go”. 

The only rule guiding the good use of language is whether the reader understands the writer’s message. Nothing else really matters. 

Spelling is a no-brainer because a lack of accuracy in that suggests a lack of care elsewhere. Ditto basic grammar. But we all learn the fundamentals of grammar when we learn to talk: it isn’t more difficult than that. 

It’s a bit more complicated when it comes to the use of technical terms and jargon, though it always comes back to what is going to help the audience understand your message. If you’re talking to CERN scientists, you’ll need very different content than you need for a general business audience, for example.  

We all have our preferences and our own styles. Mine is that I always try to write in a conversational way. But that doesn’t work for every circumstance so I have to adapt, depending on the audience. 

I’m deliberately making this sound simple. It isn’t, of course.  

First, you have to know what you want to say. Then you need to make sure you know your audience. Only then can you write your content in a way you know your audience will understand, absorb and, importantly, act on. After all, we’re here to affect behavioural change, be it buying something, thinking something or doing something. And guess what? That means you have to talk to your audience in the way it understands.  

If you want to learn more about the importance of norma loquendi, I suggest looking up Oliver Kamm, who has written about it extensively. 

Charlie Pryor

Senior Advisor, International Communications, based in London

Charlie is an experienced communications consultant who started Leidar UK in 2010. He is responsible for developing and implementing communications strategies for companies and organisations of all sizes and in many different sectors.

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