Language guide
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Language guide

The linguist Paul Grice examined the structure of effective conversations. His work [1] gives us four principles, or maxims, to observe at all times:

  • The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.
  • The maxim of quality, where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.
  • The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion.
  • The maxim of manner, when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity.

To help with this, a few short heuristics:

  • Always look for and cite multiple sources. Either link them or put them in an understandable section at the bottom.
  • Aim for a clear, direct and conversational tone. Be blunt. Swearing is fine, as long as it serves a clear purpose of conveying some useful information. We’re not here to be polite: we’re here to be right.
  • Active voice, not passive. “...was stated by the CEB”. “...treasury was depleted by the banker.” These are all far weaker than: “The CEB stated that” “The banker depleted the treasury.”
  • Explain jargon and acronyms; explain institutions, relations, and authority. Every field has specific operational language that makes sense to practitioners within a field. However, we cannot expect general readers to know this jargon. What is the PUCSL? What is a regulator? Even when it lengthens an article, take the time to pen a concise explanation when introducing a term.
  • When editing, aim for a grade 8-9 readability score on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Reader’s Digest operates at a grade 8-9 level; Time Magazine is slightly lower. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is at a grade 4 level. Essentially, nobody should need a college degree to read our work.
  • Use commas. Use the Oxford comma. This is what happens when you don’t:
  • image
  • Name first, designation second Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
  • On numbers: 0-9: use letters. If you insist on using numerals, make sure it’s a double digit: 01, 02, 03. Else, say one two three. 10 and upwards: use numerals.

References

[1] Grice, Paul. 1989. Studies in the Way of Words. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674852710. Google Books.