You may have never seen a telegraph or received a telegram, but this now-antiquated communication technology was once the only way to send a message over distance quickly. In Greek, “tele” means “at a distance,” and “graph” means “to write.” This system is over 150 years old, and Western Union was well-known for transmitting Morse code (dots and dashes) that were then translated into words at the other end. Orville Wright used a telegram to document the world’s first four successful flights on December 17, 1903.
Wright wrote “Success four flights thursday [sic] morning all against twenty one mile wind.” His telegraphic style was brief because Western Union charged by the word. Wright omitted articles (a twenty one mile wind); prepositions (on thursday); and even the subject and verb (we had success).
The telegraphic style in general omits articles, pronouns, conjunctions, transitions, and other sentence structures. Such a clipped writing style would bring out your boss’s red pen, right? Well, maybe not. You’re probably using telegraphic style more than you think, especially if you write the following:
- PowerPoint slides
- Headings and subheadings
- Table headings
- Instant messages
- Text messages
- Notes to family
Here are some examples of telegraphic style:
- Headings and subheadings: Biology Behind In Vitro Tests for Genetic Toxicology
- Headlines: 10 US Baptists charged with child kidnap
- Captions: Nature of contact with body
- Table headings: Simplified diagram: Human body defense systems
- Procedures: Lift lever…
- Instructions: Push bell twice to notify clerk of arrival
- Notes to family (dinner 8:30 Tom’s)
If you decide to use the telegraphic style, always test your writing on your target audience to make sure that your omissions don’t compromise your message. Clarity always trumps conciseness.
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A contrarian view that claims that telegraphic omissions create potential ambiguity