A capital idea

It can be an inexact science, the written word, not easy to pin down. As a result, local authorities (note: not Local Authorities) often fall into all manner of grammatical potholes attempting to Get It Right.

Just because a three-letter acronym by its very nature takes capital letters, that really doesn’t mean that the thing being acronymised adopts those capitals when written in full: writing ‘Our Project Initiation Document blah blah…’ just because we write ‘PID’? No thanks. And ‘P.I.D.’? – let’s not go there.

Admittedly there are grey areas when it comes to common nouns and proper nouns, but even here logic can and should win out. Such august organs as the Dailys Telegraph and Mail would have it that the prime minister is the Prime Minister. Would your postman be the Postman? No, yet ‘prime minister’ is a job title pure and simple, nothing more, nothing less, like ‘postman’. Yes, rules of writing can be inexact, but there’s cold, hard easy-to-grasp logic at work here. ‘Prime minister’ only gets caps in some unenlightened quarters because it’s considered an important job, but that approach can never be consistently applied because where do you draw the line of importance? Credit here to The Guardian and The Sunday Times incidentally who, among many others, write ‘prime minister’ properly.

The capping up of job titles is something that will eventually be entirely consigned to the dustbin of history, and is now going through that transitional phase where progressive copywriters have ditched it and traditionalists persist. You might think the progressive approach is dangerously radical, sacrilegious, disrespectful to or belittling of the person whose job is being described in such a demeaning lower-case way, or it may all depend on your vintage/how/when you were taught etc. However, as sure as eggs is eggs, the lower-case approach will win over in the end. Our chief executive is referred to on our web and intranet pages as just that, not our Chief Executive.

And the issue of job titles is of course merely an example of a wider malaise. The same logic can be applied much more widely.

So, Shropshire Council’s Digital Services web content team think that as part of a more progressive way to write generally, job titles, along with a range of other things, should be in lower case. Look at how capital letters were used in Victorian times and indeed right up to the 1950s to see how things have changed. You’ll also find a multitude of examples in a lot of local authority writing if you go back far enough – last week or yesterday should be far enough.

Another thing that’s something of a bugbear is plain English, or the lack of it. In the main, local authorities are fabulous and expert at what they do, and officers should never feel the need to have to hide behind multi-syllabic flannel in the misguided belief that grandiosity delivers authority. It actually reflects a lack of self-confidence, an insecurity about writing plainly about what we offer. We do tips, we do potholes, we do libraries, we do a million other things, and we do them really well. Some of this work may not be considered glamorous, but it’s hugely important in allowing our communities to function. That should be enough to ensure that no-one writing local authority copy feels the need to attempt to jazz it up with unnecessarily florid or meandering verbosity or alienating pomposity, but unfortunately it’s still, particularly the latter, absolutely everywhere in what we write.

We should interact with our residents and customers using everyday language, and glory in having the confidence to do so. We can, for example, ask them to ‘use’ stuff, not ‘utilise’ it – would you suggest to someone face to face that they utilise…well, anything?! This should ensure that what we write actually makes sense to our audiences, and ensures that we come across as being relatable human beings – revolutionary concepts I know.

Our tiny centralised team of web editors uses our in-house style guide (get in touch if you’d like a copy) and its web writing and structuring skills to add quality and consistency to literally everything that comes through us to be added to the council websites - we’re not merely a copy and paste service. This can sometimes lead to grammatical disagreements or “How dare you cut huge swathes out of my perfectly crafted, navel-gazing 1000-word essay on man-hole cover policy” outbursts, but these are usually quickly resolved because we can back up our actions with proven best-practice guidance, and tools such as Site Improve when we unpublish a webpage that has garnered three hits in a year, yet has been considered absolutely vital by its original author. We also specialise in shortening sentences like that last one.

With what we do in our team, content may be king but brevity and simplicity wield the real power behind the throne.

Next time, I’ll take a fascinating and in-depth look at the use of contractions. Do they informalise too much, robbing your content of authority? Do they soften everything agreeably, giving customers a warmer, more inclusive experience? Is there a time and a place for their use? See - as I said, fascinating.  

Thank you for reading, and if there are any particularly egregious grammatical faux pas in the piece above I humbly apologise.