Blog in 07 2012.
Remember that ‘grammar nazi’ sketch on Mitchell & Webb? The boss of a business calmly shoots employees who misuse or (mostly) mispronounce words and ends up killing himself when a colleague points out his own mistake. What is it about it that makes us laugh? The risqué idea of going on a workplace killing spree? Or is it that we imagine ourselves pointing the gun at apostrophe, comma and colon abusers? (Enough about my dodgy fantasies.)
There’s obviously something about grammar that gets under people’s skin. Newspapers’ postbags and inboxes are groaning with spleen-venting rants about this or that mistake that lazy sub-editors have let through. The ranters usually end up tracing the ‘problem’ back to inadequate teaching. Or a general decline in ‘standards’. Which of course were much higher when they went to school and learned how to do it all properly.
Take a look at this nutty blog from a businessman who says he won’t hire people with ‘poor grammar’. Then check out the comments. Typical combination of frothing anger and nit-picking. Hardly anyone’s thinking about what the piece actually says. They’re all getting stuck on hyphens and split infinitives.
Above all, they’re not seeing that good writing is about more than grammar. Grammar all by itself never moved anyone. Never persuaded them. Never entertained them.
So what’s really going on when the ‘sticklers’ hold forth? I’ll take a punt. People who dislike and fear change, but can’t do much about it, are latching on to what they see as an example of it and letting out all that pent-up fear and rage. It helps that the topic is something they feel they’re an ‘expert’ on.
It’s great if you can put your commas and apostrophes in the right places. And not get your ‘there’ and ‘their’ mixed up. Your writing will be easier to read and readers won’t get distracted by the mistakes. They’ll probably take the writing more seriously too. But that’s assuming they read to the end. To make them do that you need personality, verve, style.
People write best when they enjoy it. And they won’t do that if they’re getting an insecurity complex from their inner school master.
Our touch-screen scrolling thumbs are getting more of a work out than ever before. And just today the Financial Times revealed that a quarter of their www.ft.com users read articles on their smartphones. I have a feeling that fraction will only get bigger.
That’s why it’s even more important to think hard about your main point before you reel off an email to your workmates. Our smartphones may be smart, but their screens are much smaller than our desktop screens. So if you’ve left the meat of your message till the end, or buried it among the background info, there’s more chance of the most important thing getting lost.
So ask yourself, what do you need your reader to do? What do you really need them to know? And put that up front. Then they can flex their scroll-thumb at their leisure and read all the background stuff having already understood the main point of the email.
I love self-service tills in supermarkets. For a start, I’m an introvert, so they mean one less human interaction in my day. Also, it’s really satisfying beep-beep-beeping your stuff across the scanner – like when you were little and pretended you worked on a checkout. (Maybe that was just me.)
But really: whose idea was it to make them talk like a cross between a cyborg and a civil servant? I don’t know why they bothered getting that velvet-voiced lady to read the script when she just ends up barking weird phrases like ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ at you. They should’ve gone for a full-on Dalek voice and had done with it.
There are two reasons why the supermarkets should get on to this.
Firstly, daft, robotic phrases like ‘please wait while we verify your bags’ aren’t exactly consistent with the warm, customer-friendly supermarket persona.
Secondly, half the time the machine makes no blooming sense. Many a time I’ve gone in for a packet of paracetamol or a bottle of wine and found myself standing there like a lemon while the till bleats ‘approval needed’ at me. I’d probably feel a little less exasperated if it said something sensible like ‘We just need a member of staff to check that for you’.
Supermarkets, we’d be more than happy to help you make your machines more human.
The Writer’s global training juggernaut rolls on, this week to China and Australia, where we’ve seen our misconceptions speedily overturned.
We’ve been training salespeople in a British multinational to write more persuasively, and our starting point was to get people writing more like they’d speak. In fact, we’d wanted to summarise it to our Aussie cousins as ‘make your writing sound more Australian, and less British’.
But oddly, when we came to look at their writing in bids and proposals, it was even more formal than the Brits’. What’s that about?
A (South African) participant in Sydney suggested that it was basically an insecure ex-colony trying to show its British (now corporate) masters that they know how to behave in polite society, by writing emails inviting clients to a ‘private luncheon’ (seriously). Needless to say he was shouted down by most of his colleagues.
But when we got to Beijing and Shanghai, we were (perhaps naively) surprised by just how quickly they took to what we were recommending. After an hour or two, they were writing really natural, straightforward, confident documents. In their second language.
And in Beijing airport we were surrounded by signs saying things like ‘Don’t leave your luggage here’. Now, that contraction would cause uproar in some of our British workshops with its dangerous informality. The Chinese, it seems, aren’t bothered (though admittedly, there were quite a few signs telling us what not to do).
So next time we’re back in Oz, we’re going to recommend some good old-fashioned Chinese straight-talking.
If you’re in Britain, take a look outside. Look up, up a bit more. There. Looking at that grey mass above you, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re in November. But no, it’s July.
We should be basking in balmy sunshine, not wrestling with temperamental umbrellas. The streets should be swarming with people in shorts, flip-flops and sunglasses. But no. We’re stuck with miserable indecisive weather that goes from blue skies to grey so fast you might get whiplash.
What’s worse than the miserable weather though? The consistently boring way weather folk talk about it. Take a look at any weather forecast and you’ll see ‘drizzle’, ‘showers’ and ‘rain’. Sometimes you get an adjective before it, like ‘heavy’, ‘scattered’ or ‘persistent’. But that’s as far as it goes.
(Okay, okay, I’ll admit that ‘scattered’ is a nice image, but it’s so overused.)
If Eskimos have 50 words for snow, surely us English speakers can do better than those six words?
I want to know if there’ll be a ‘light tickle of raindrops’ or if it’ll be ‘raining cats and dogs’. Will it be ‘lashing it down’, or a mere ‘sprinkling’? Is it dry-to-sopping-in-half-a-minute, or slightly-slippery-sidewalk kind of weather?
Come on guys. We’ve got no sunshine to frolic in, at least make the miserable weather sound a bit more fun – please?