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I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

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21 March 2013

Cop and robber: the etiquette of polite writing in English assumes that we are all, ultimately, parts of a single community

The picture below, published in today’s Guardian, seems to me to illustrate something very important about etiquette which should be reflected in the way language is used. Too often in Russia, I have seen writing which is designed to distance the reader from the writer, frequently by making simple thoughts complicated or by stressing unnecessarily the superior importance of the writer in relation to the reader. Even newspapers can be written like this, and it is the general rule in academic writing.
     I do not like or admire this style, which strikes me as pompous and conceited, and therefore unmannerly. I think it is more courteous to make your thoughts as easily understood as possible, and to ignore your status (if any) vis à vis the reader. The point is that we are all, ultimately, part of the same community, or should be treated as such by polite writers.

John Wooley, left, one of the policemen who caught Bruce Reynolds, right (who died last week), one of the Great Train Robbers.
 They are enjoying a pint and a laugh together on the 40th anniversary of what was one of the most famous crimes in
 recent British history. (Photo: Justin McManus/Rex Features)

     The picture I have reproduced above illustrates this principle for British life rather well, I think. It shows two people centrally involved in one of the most famous crimes ever committed in Britain, the so-called Great Train Robbery, which took place on 8 August 1983, almost exactly fifty years ago. The occasion for publishing the photograph was the funeral of the man pictured right above who was one of those robbers. He was caught and sentenced to 25 years in jail for his part in stealing £2.8 million (close to £100 million in today’s money) from a mail train carrying used banknotes from Glasgow to London. He served ten years, and, after release, wrote a successful book called The Autobiography of a Thief. He died last week and was buried yesterday.
     The man pictured left above was one of the police detectives involved in catching the train robbers. Policeman and thief are seen enjoying a beer together on the 40th anniversary of the robbery, ten years ago. Can you imagine such a scene in Russia?
     One of the basic arts of good writing in English is to treat the reader as an equal, indeed a friend (but without being over-familiar). We are all, in the end, parts of the single community of those who use English. That in itself is a good enough excuse for a beer and a laugh. Anyone for another pint?

1 comment:

  1. Ian,

    Sorry to disillusion you, but cops in Russia enjoy beer with thieves (and also murderers, drugdealers, rapists, you name it) much more often than you can even imagine. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

    As a sidetrack: "almost exactly fifty years ago" should perhaps read "thirty" instead?