Business writing – A is for Anglosaxon

Elen Lewis, editor of The Marketing Society says choose your words carefully.

There is an Anglosaxon word called ban-hus. It means bone-house and was used to describe the human body. It paints a beautiful picture and linguist David Crystal describes ‘bone-house’ as a word painting.

In Beowulf, the epic Anglosaxon poem, the sea is a whale-road, ligaments are bone-locks, the sun is a sky candle and icicles are water ropes.

Anglosaxon poets used coinages or kennings to vary their descriptions when they wrote long tales of battles and journeys. If only business writing used the Anglosaxon poetic impulse to vary descriptions.

Words can inspire revolution and laughter. They can change hearts and minds. They can influence, illuminate, challenge. They can strike fear and create delight.  Words are a powerful thing. I like what Coleridge said, “Poetry is the best words in the best order.”

Before you worry about getting flowery and sounding clever, pay some attention to the power of plain words. George Orwell said, “bad writers are haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.” So, don’t use a long word when a short word would do. English is better than Latin. You don’t exterminate, you kill. You don’t salivate, you drool. You don’t conflagrate, you burn.

Moses did not say to Pharaoh: “The consequence of non-release of one particular subject ethnic population could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation in the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for flora and fauna, not excluding consumer services.”

He said “the waters which are in the river … shall be turned to blood, and the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink.”

Choosing Anglosaxon words over French or Latin words will help your business writing become more powerful.

Winston Churchill’s speeches set the world alight. He liked to use simple Anglosaxon words, saying,  “Short words are best and old words when short are best of all.” He never used jargon.

Like the Anglosaxon poets, he understood the power of painting pictures with words. In his ‘Finest Hour’ speech he said, “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

In the same speech he made his verbs work hard for him, using verbs like grieve, fall, rise, defend, fight, break, stand up to, fail, sink, brace, bear. He was precise and this meant he did not use one single lazy verb like drive, deliver, achieve.

So, in every sentence you write ask yourself five questions:

  • What am I trying to say?
  • What words will express it?
  • What image will make it clearer?
  • Could I put it more shortly?
  • Have I said something that is unavoidably ugly?

Poet Simon Armitage writes, “In choosing a word, you’re making a statement.” So choose carefully, choose well and remember your Anglosaxon roots.

Elen is director of The Business Writing Academy. Send your business writing thoughts and questions to

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  • © 2014 Elen Lewis