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Plain English and the law

Writing Quotes 3: 'Vigorous writing is concise'

Avoiding 'puffery' and 'weasel words': useful advice from the Wikipedia Manual of Style

Writing Quotes 2: 'I try to leave out the parts that people skip

Tellers of Tales and Keepers of Memories: Senchas

The Complete Plain Words - a style guide for writers

Four ways to self-publish

Writing Quotes 1: 'Kill your darlings'

Glossaries of Literary Terms

TLAs and Other Acronyms

Plain English and the law

This guide to the use of plain English in legal matters was published by the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) and Mason, Hayes & Curran Solicitors in February 2017. It includes guidelines for writing in plain English, and suggests plain English terms to replace legal 'jargon'. The guide can be downloaded here.

Posted 11 April 2017

Writing Quotes 3: 'Vigorous writing is concise'

William Strunk's 1918 book The Elements of Style is still an excellent resource for every writer, especially those who write to explain or inform. Strunk was professor of English at Cornell University. In a section entitled 'Omit needless words', he has this advice:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

The book can be found online here:

Posted 14 September 2015

Avoiding 'puffery' and 'weasel words': useful advice from the Wikipedia Manual of Style

The Wikipedia Manual of Style has useful advice for avoiding puffery in its 'Words to watch' section. It defines puffery as 'words used without attribution to promote the subject of an article while neither imparting nor plainly summarizing verifiable information'; they are known to the Wikipedia contributor community as 'peacock terms'. Examples given include 'extraordinary', 'legendary' and 'visionary'.

Weasel words (another animal term) are defined as 'statements which appear to assert something but subtly imply something different, opposite, or stronger in the way they are made'. The definition continues: 'A common form of weasel wording is through vague attribution, where a statement is dressed with authority with no substantial basis.' Examples include: 'some people say' and 'many scholars state'.

See Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Words to watch for more style advice.

Posted: 03/02/2014

Writing Quotes 2: 'I try to leave out the parts that people skip'

'I try to leave out the parts people skip' - American writer Elmore Leonard dispensed this piece of wisdom in his 'Ten Rules for Writing Fiction'. He also famously said: 'If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.'

Read his ten tips together with writing tips from Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Franzen and others:

Posted: 18/12/2013

Tellers of Tales and Keepers of Memories: Senchas

Redwood Castle 

Redwood Castle, Co. Tipperary, a school of history and law run by the bardic family, the MacEgans. Photo by Steve Ford Elliot, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

History: them and us

We tend to think of history as something we invented: history is us looking back and trying to understand them. We forget that history existed for them too. Dr Edel Bhreathnach of the Discovery Programme explored this idea at the Royal Irish Academy’s third autumn lunchtime lecture, in a talk entitled ‘Senchas: the key to history in medieval Ireland’. The lecture series is running in conjunction with the academy’s current exhibition:  Aon Amharc ar Éirinn:  Gaelic families and their manuscripts.

Senchas: tales and tradition

The word senchas is one of those complicated words that resist precise definition, or perhaps just have a multitude of meanings. It can mean, according to the Dictionary of the Irish language ( ‘old tales, ancient history, tradition’, and has many branches, including dindshenchas, the lore of places; banshenchas, the lore of women; náemshenchas, the lore of saints; and scélshenchas, storytelling. The 12fth century Senchus na Relec is a compilation of tales regarding the ancient burial grounds at Rathcroghan, Tailltiu and Brú na Bóinne.

While senchas evolved in an oral tradition, the stories and lore were eventually gathered into the great medieval annals and the manuscripts of the Gaelic families. The various annals – the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Inisfallen, the Annals of Tigernach etc. – record historical events as they occurred, year by year. Dr Bhreathnach gave an example from the Annals of Ulster for the year 783:

Combustio Aird Machae & Maighi h-Eu Saxonum

which has been translated* as:

The burning of Ard Macha and Mag Eó na Saxan

(Ard Macha – Armagh; Mag Eó na Saxan – Mayo)

Other notable events that year include a destructive storm, and infighting within the monastery of Ferns:

Terrible lightning throughout Saturday night – and thunder – on the … 2nd of August, and a very violent windstorm destroyed the monastery of Cluain Brónaig. A battle in Ferna Mór between the abbot and the steward, i.e. between Cathal and Fiannachtach.

Many of the annalists attempted to place Irish history within a world history, often correlating events with biblical happenings; for example, the first page of the Book of Ballymote contains a drawing of Noah’s Ark, and Leabhar Gabhála, the Book of Invasions, begins its exploration of Ireland’s history with this description of the arrival of Cesair, granddaughter of Noah:

Now Cesair, daughter of Bith son of Noe, was the first who found Ireland after the beginning of the world, forty days before the flood, in the year of the age of the world, 2242.

The medieval senchaid and the modern seanchaí

Today we are familiar with the Irish term for storyteller – seanchaí, or anglicised, shanachie. This word has evolved from the Old Irish word for the custodian of senchas – the senchaid, for which the Dictionary of the Irish Language gives the meaning ‘a reciter of lore, a historian’. The word seanchaí evokes images of a bearded storyteller seated by a flickering fire, enthralling his audience with some tale. The medieval senchaid would have relayed his tales to a live audience; many of the dindshenchas texts begin with the word éist, listen, implying a tradition of oral recitation. The senchaid was an important figure in medieval society, a professional of high status, while the ollamh was the highest poet or senchaid. Dr Bhreathnach pointed out that the post of ard-ollamh or national poet/historian had appeared by the 11th century, implying the concept of a national, as opposed to a purely regional, history.

Tradition as evidence

The senchaid played a vital role in the Brehon legal system. Before the existence of title deeds to land, ownership rights were evidenced by genealogies – as Dr Bhreathnach put it ‘the collective memory of the community’ – of which the senchaid was the custodian. An Old-Irish text on court procedure** describes the ‘side court’ where the senchaid advised the judges:

The side court, it is there that there are custodians of tradition (suidi bit senchaid) and over-kings and hostages and property sureties, and it is for this reason that it is [called] the side court, because it is on the lore of the custodians of tradition (senchus na senchaid) and the clarification of the custodians of tradition (fri rellad na sendhad) that the court relies.

Scribal woes

Some lovely moments of pathos are to be found in the margins of the manuscripts. One example is a colophon in the Book of Ballymote, written at Ballymote Castle, Co. Sligo around the year 1390 by the scribes Solam, Robertus and Maghnus. The marginal inscription reads: ‘The darkness is spreading because of the wetness of the day … and I am alone without Maghnus.’

In these few words the scribe brings alive for us the wretched business it could be to work on one of the manuscripts that we value so much, turning our thoughts from a consideration of history to contemplation of the constants of the human condition. While 700 years have passed since the words were written, we are aware that we too can be cast down by grey skies and isolation. Such small insights are treasures: while the deeds of kings and abbots are worthy of notice, we feel a sense of comradeship with the cold, lonely scribe that hundreds of years cannot obliterate.

*Online versions and translations of many of the manuscripts are available at

**Edited and translated by Fergus Kelly.

Posted: 12/12/2013

The Complete Plain Words - a style guide for writers

Sir Ernest Gowers has some advice on the use of 'overworked metaphors' in his celebrated style guide The Complete Plain Words. He cites a couple of examples of the use of the term 'bottleneck': 

(1) "The biggest bottleneck in housing", meaning the worst, most constricting and presumably narrowest bottleneck.

(2) "Bottlenecks must be ironed out" (leading article in the daily press).

The Complete Plain Words was first published in 1954 and is still in print. Although the prose style is old-fashioned, it contains lots of sensible advice for avoiding wordiness and artificiality in writing. 

Posted: 02/12/2013

Four ways to self-publish

Excellent outline of how to self-publish:

Posted: 27/11/2013  

Writing quotes 1: 'Kill your darlings'

William Faulkner is credited with the quote: 'In writing, you must kill your darlings'. The original pronouncement came from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Cambridge academic and literary critic. His famous adage comes from the lecture series published as 'On the Art of Writing':

'Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it--wholeheartedly--and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.'

 Posted: 26/11/2013

Glossaries of Literary Terms 

Do you confuse your allegories with your alliterations? See these two useful online glossaries of literary terms: 

Posted: 25/11/2013

Law, Life, Wives and Watercress

O Davoren Law School Burren Cty Clare 1997 09 02 300pixels

 The ruins of the O'Davoren Law School in County Clare, photo by Andreas F. Borchert

Professor Liam Breatnach performed a neat feat in condensing a thousand years of the Brehon Laws into the proverbial nutshell on Tuesday at the Royal Irish Academy’s lunchtime lecture.

Law reflects life
While an hour-long talk on the subject of law might induce a glazed expression in many, Professor Breatnach emphasised early on that law is about life. He alluded again and again to the treasury of information about life in early-Christian and medieval Ireland to be found in the Brehon Law manuscripts, from the structure of this hierarchical, patriarchal society, to what the people ate and the type of houses they lived in.

The word bretha means ‘judgments’, and the Brehon Laws are not legislation as we know it today, but manuals of laws enforced by custom. The Seanchas Már – Great Tradition – dates from the late 7th century, and contains 47 sections, dealing minutely with such issues as relations between neighbours (Bretha Comaithchesa), bees and bee-keeping (Bechbretha), and ‘sick maintenance’ – the precursor to today’s ‘compo’ awards – whereby someone who injures another is obliged to maintain him or her until recovery. Great detail is given of the exact type of food and shelter to which a person of each status is entitled while on sick-maintenance, and from this law we glean information about foods common to the medieval diet, including ‘properly-baked’ bread, salt-meat, and ‘garden herbs’ – watercress, garlic, and celery.

Wives, hostage-takers and satirists
Another section of the Seanchas Már, the Cáin Lánamna,‘Regulation of Couples’, deals with the nine types of union that were recognised under the Brehon Laws. Polygyny is thought to have been widespread in medieval Ireland. Other sections deal with hostage-taking – Di Gnímaib Gíall, ‘On the Functions of Hostages’ – and áer, satire, a thing greatly feared in medieval Ireland.

‘No pretence’ at being egalitarian
Society was obsessed with status; Professor Breatnach said that it ‘didn’t even make the pretence’ of being egalitarian. Everyone had his or her grade or status in society and all rights and obligations were determined by this status.

Interestingly, the five means of obtaining or increasing status still resonate strongly: nobility, holiness (high ecclesiastical office), scholarship, skill (in a craft or trade), and … wealth. Hospitality was a highly-prized trait, and the brigu or hospitaller was a person of great wealth who was obliged to provide hospitality to all comers, in return for high status.

Folk memory
The Brehon Laws hold their place in folk memory even today; protestors cited the Laws in a recent standoff with receivers at a property in Kildare. In a time when Ireland has a poet-president, it is interesting to note that in the Seanchas Már, the same status is awarded to a king, bishop and ‘a master poet who chants extempore, whom inspiration illuminates’. It is illuminating for us to consider how, in some ways, our far-off ancestors’ thinking did not greatly diverge from our own.

Posted: 10/11/2013 

TLAs and other acronyms


RIP: some acronyms have been around for ages
In the days of quills and ink, people wrote words out in full.  The huge increase in the use of acronyms in the second half of the 20th century coincided with great strides in technology and science, and reflects a need to convey complex information without crowding out the meaning.  Some older acronyms are still well known today – RIP, AWOL, RSVP – but the word acronym has been part of the English language only since the 1940s. Acronyms pronounced as words (as opposed to initialisms which are pronounced as letters) appear to be a 20th-century phenomenon; examples include radar and scuba.

A deluge of TLAs
Some industries are more guilty than others when it comes to the use of acronyms, in particular the information technology industry, and the advent of the internet produced a deluge of new acronyms, while medicine, engineering and finance have all developed their own expansive sets. Social media can be blamed for some of the newer (and more annoying) acronyms – think of BFF and LOL – but linguistic commentators point out that acronyms are a natural fit for communication methods with limited space.

Three golden rules
Acronyms can aid clarity, but the following guidelines should be kept in mind:

1. Acronyms should be used only insofar as they actually help to provide clarity. If they are too frequent, they may end up obscuring the meaning.
2. Consider the audience. The more specialised the audience, the more likely it is that they will understand specialist acronyms. A document intended for a more general readership should contain fewer acronyms.
3. Explain acronyms at first use and provide a key (see below). Explaining acronyms at first usage is good practice, although a key is also necessary, as the reader may not read the document sequentially.

Tigger’s take on acronyms
Like many other things in life, acronyms have their place, but should be used with caution. And on that note, as Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Tigger might say, TTFN.

Acronym key
AWOL: absent without official leave

BFF: best friends forever
LOL: laugh out loud/lots of love/lots of luck
OAP: old age pensioner
RADAR: radio detection and ranging
RIP:  requiescat in pace/rest in peace
RSVP: respondez sil vous plait
RTFM: read the ****ing manual
SCUBA: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
SOS: not actually an acronym at all
TTFN: ta ta for now
YABA: yet another bloody acronym

Posted: 5/11/2013

Plagiarism and Other Skulduggery in Medieval Ireland 

Grange stone circle300pix

Standing stones or petrified druids? Photo by Jon Sullivan,

The Royal Irish Academy began its autumn lunchtime lecture series yesterday with a rather surprising insight into a venerable Irish manuscript - the 500 year old Book of Fenagh. Speaker, Professor Raymond Gillespie of NUI Maynooth, titled his talk 'The Book of Fenagh, or, an imagined life'. The book, dating from 1516 and written by Muirgheas Mac Phaidín Uí Mhaoil Chonaire, is ostensibly a saintly 'Life' of Saint Caillín, in the medieval Irish tradition.

Not so, said Professor Gillespie. The book is an exercise in sixteenth-century power and politics, both church and secular. Part of the book is lifted wholesale from the Life of St Berach, a fact spotted by an eagle-eyed editor of the Book of Fenagh in the last century, proving that plagiarism is no new phenomenon.

One appealing tale in the book relates how the standing stones still to be seen at Fenagh today are in fact a group of druids who tried to banish St Caillín from the area, they having come off worst from the encounter.

The next lecture is titled ‘The Brehon laws and medieval Irish society'; see the full programme for the RIA autumn lecture series here. 

Posted 23/10/2013