“Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.”
My high school English teacher in Manila used to make us read William Safire’s New York Times “On Language” column as part of our curriculum; not for his political commentary, but rather for his commentary on the use and misuse of the English language. We found his columns fascinating, and as any fan of Safire’s would agree, an appropriate advanced course on the fine art of sarcasm.
“Nobody stands taller than those willing to stand corrected.”
Now, I’m the last person to be lecturing others about the proper use of the English language. I didn’t grow up in a native English-speaking household, and my youth (while it is not over) was mostly spent in countries where English wasn’t the first language. English has its own localised flavour in these countries. For instance, instead of saying “restroom” in the Philippines, we say “comfort room.” This makes perfect sense to us, because you don’t feel rested after going to the bathroom, but arguably you do feel more comfortable. The editor of this blog will probably correct my spelling of “localised” and “flavour,” (Editor’s note: Not this time.) but this is how I was taught to spell and, indeed, will continue to. The United States is the only English-speaking country with a spelling all unto itself. No other native English-speaking country spells like the Americans; they all spell like me. Me, defensive? Perish the thought.
“Never put the story in the lead. Let ‘em have a hot shot of ambiguity right between the eyes.”
For those of us in the marketing communications business, clarity, precision, structure and grace are paramount. Yet, look at what has happened. We talk like a bunch of idiots, and no one seems to notice anymore.
“We leverage innovative solutions, empowering collaborative organisations to deliver real-world results that drive maximum impact.”
What the heck does that mean? It’s gotten to the point where I can’t even use actual words like “solution” or “collaborate” because they have been so overused and abused that they’ve lost their meaning.
One theory is that we’ve simply created puffery around our thoughts, this creating an impression of superior intelligence. A harsher point of view says that really, when marketers didn’t know the answer, we just blague our way through some sort of explanation as a defensive move. Regardless, this approach seems to have become de rigeur.
“Adapt your style, if you wish, to admit the color of slang or freshness of neologism, but hang tough on clarity, precision, structure, grace.”
In many ways, it is a relief that the TELEX didn’t influence how we speak. I don’t know how many times I’d be able to “STOP” myself. But with the avalanche of SMS truncations, email emoticons, wall post narratives, animal memes and Twitterisation of the English language, colloquialisms find themselves much more aggressively forced into mainstream and business parlance.
One of my favourite clients fills his emails to us with happy face emoticons and exclamations of delight!!! This is not a bad thing!!! ☺ In fact, these short missives mean the world to us.
Where it starts to get a bit wonky is in the area of colloquial speech typically more common outside the workplace. For instance, “Dude, I flaked” is still a phrase that strikes me as more Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure than a legitimate (though unacceptable) reason for missing an internal creative review.
“English is a stretch language; one size fits all.”
What is remarkable is that it appears that the colloquial and business worlds are colliding. I was sitting in a meeting with a very bright senior-level executive the other day—a native English speaker, I might add—who presented her company’s approach to performance measurement and appended her jargon-ridden explanation with “…and whatnot.” Now, this isn’t to say that their technology wasn’t impressive and that she wasn’t brilliant—quite the opposite. But her choice of dissonant language was particularly striking to me. Yet I think that for the others in the room, this was as discernible as ventilator hum.
“Took me a while to get to the point today, but that is because I did not know what the point was when I started.”
It would not be right to condemn what I’m seeing as blasphemy. Colloqualisation of language is critical to its growth; without this we’d be betwixt a rock and a hard place as an evolved species. And as marketers, we’d have less ability to connect with people.
Great campaigns like “Think Different” would never have seen the light of day if the grammar police decided against allowing the incorrect juxtaposition of the two words.
But what is evident in “Think Different” is a thoughtful deliberateness in choice of language. What I lament is that whether intentionally or unintentionally, language that obscures meaning is an alarming trend in our industry. It is almost unimportant to discern if that is due to laziness, puffery or something else entirely. What I see is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand each other. And if those of us in marketing communications can’t do that, then we’re all in trouble. And whatnot.
“To communicate, put your words in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce.”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.