Thursday, 20 August 2009
Crystal Balls for Business Writers
"Now that we've all gone casual and chatty when we write," said Mr. 4160 last night, "what do you think will be next? Going serious and using masses of jargon?"
So I had a bit of a think.
Based on what happens in writing workhops - the ones I've been in; I can't speak for the others - I'd predict that we're going to be tidying up our English. At every workshop I've run, I've told everyone that they are not in a grammar class and no-one's going to start lecturing about accuracy; on the other hand, when you're in a room full of people who write for a living, and no-one's going to judge you if you've got a question, it's probably a good time to air your worries. I might ask, opening the shutters a little, "Where would you use brackets and where would you use dashes?" Then it all pours out: semi-colons, it's and its, different to, than or from. Just like which knife and fork to start with, it's not life and death, but people want to do it right.
In my experience, there are two groups of people who say they don't care about where apostrophes go. The first: people with masters degrees in languages, literature or linguistics. The second: the deeply insecure who hate being taught and disliked the way they were forced to learn at school.
Greengrocers care deeply where apostrophes go; they just get it wrong.
The first group talk about the Greengrocers' Apostrophe, the one that turns up in "Apple's £1 a basket" or "Fresh farm egg's". There is a common misunderstanding that apostrophes go in plurals, which they don't if you follow the generally accepted, current guidelines. The outstandingly educated people I know put it all into historical context and talk about the evolution of language; if that's the way the common man writes, then that is the way the language will go. Mind you, they wouldn't be seen dead with their own apostrophes out of place. (For the best ever discussion about this read David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster.)
The second group never seem to mind if their spelling is corrected. It's fine for spelling to be unequivocally right or wrong (although any research into Mr. Shakespeare's or Miss Austen's original works might change their minds) but questioning their grammar and punctuation is like suggesting they work on improving their dancing, driving or sexual techniques.
Nope, I think that the greengrocers do care. Why else would they bother to put them in at all? There's a beautiful mix up I've seen in a cafe window: Tea's, Coffees and Breakfast's. What was it that went through the mind of the signwriter as he or she wrote it? What is it about coffees that makes it exempt?
That picture was in New Look's window in York this summer. Gladiator sandals was £20. Did no-one ever say, "Ahem, shouldn't we say "were" because there's more than one sandal?" Not one person? In the whole approval process from concept to window, everyone thought it was fine to write was instead of were? I'll tell you who would have kicked up a fuss, anyone French, German, Spanish or Italian who had learned English at school. One of my foreign colleagues recently asked me why a native English speaker had made a particular mistake and the best answer I could give at the time was, "He's doing his very best but he's not as well educated as you are." Rude, I know, but what would you say?
For me, taking time to check that your writing says what you mean is simple politeness. You are hoping that someone will read it and understand it, then act on it. New Look were hoping that people would buy the sandals; the cafe wants to sell breakfasts and they probably will. Only the most severe of Trussites would punish errors by withholding their business.
If you want to check that your writing is clear, pass it to someone else to read out loud; if they trip over the words, then it needs more work. BBC newsreaders say they can read anything, live with no rehearsal, as long as it's been punctuated correctly.
For me, getting it right it not about the writer and his or her ego, their past education, their concerns about where they fit into the class system, authenticity or any of the other excuses I've heard. It's about being considerate, kind and polite.
It's like deciding whether or not to use the indicators when you're driving or sticking your arms out when you're cycling. It's making your intentions clear to others so that they can make a decision based on what you are telling them. If you can't be bothered to give clear signals, whether they are hands, flashing lights or semi-colons, then you are being inconsiderate. If you're misunderstood it's your own silly fault.
Life's too short to waste time explaining yourself twice. Once is bad enough.
If you'd like to check the guidelines go for the Penguin Writer's Manual. It's small, light, cheap and easy to read. It sheds light where there is darkness.
Incidentally, Word's built in grammar checker quite often gets it wrong.
If you'd like to come to one of our workshops, get in touch.
If you'd like us to run one at your organisation, same applies.