Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thorndike, wherefore art thou?

Let me tell you about a person who did more for advertising copywriting, including direct-response, in the last 100 years than anyone else I can think of. He was an American author and language specialist named Edward L. Thorndike. Likely, you never even heard of him, but don't let it bother you, because most other people in advertising never heard of him either. But you can help yourself greatly by learning about his guidelines to writing clearer words.

Thorndike was probably the most productive linguistic psychologist the world has ever known. Beginning in 1900, he wrote more than 500 books and articles, averaging more than ten a year. Fortunately for us, he became interested in the improvement of language’s vital role in the communications process, and distilled his knowledge into writing the "Twentieth Century Dictionary."

His book lists the 80,000 most-used English words, and gives their meanings in the order of general public understanding. What use is this to us today? Well, for example, if you use a word in a particular meaning and Thorndike showed it as the sixth or seventh most common meaning, you can be sure many in your audience won't understand it, and you will be wise to avoid using the word.

‘Too bad that the book is so very hard to find today, as it can be such a practical tool for use every day in copywriting. Any fortunate owner of "Twentieth Century Dictionary" can rely on it for checking doubtful words in general public perception. It won't automatically make your copy successful, but it will make it more understandable, enabling it to be better than a lot of advertising written every day.

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