Blog in Grammar rants
A lot of people have been getting worked up about commentators using 'medal' as a verb during the Olympics.
Everybody calm down. The English language is packed to the rafters with verbs that didn’t start out as verbs. Like these:
Languages evolve, and there’s nothing we can (or should) do about it.
Boy, the British Government loves wading into debates about English usage. The Department for Education has just issued rules on which uses of the exclamation mark will get kids credit in tests (only in sentences that start with ‘How’ or ‘What’). A few years ago the Justice Secretary (and former Education Secretary) Michael Gove fired off his own idiosyncratic hodge-podge of guidance about what’s acceptable English and what’s not.
Now, here at The Writer, we bemoan the over-use of exclamation marks with the best of them. But an arbitrary rule about which sentences should have them, and which shouldn’t, is barmy. That’s not how language works.
We should be teaching kids (and exam markers) that these aren’t black-and-white issues, but questions of context, judgement and taste. And if you really want to know where exclamation marks actually get used, do some science. Get some data. There’s what an academic linguist would do. The Department of Health wouldn’t recommend a medicine on the basis of what colour pill some minister happened to prefer, so why do we tolerate the same subjective amateurishness about language? That’s how unsubstantiated superstitions like ‘You can’t start a sentence with “and”’ become accepted, but ill-informed, wisdom.
It’s not like it’s difficult to investigate. At The Writer we were debating how to describe in the US what our UK clients call ‘tone of voice’. In the US, we hear ‘brand voice’, ‘verbal branding’ and all sorts of alternatives. So we checked which terms people searched on Google, and ‘tone of voice’ was still the clear winner. Two minutes’ research into real usage and job done. Using facts, not hunches, or prejudices.
I’ve been spending another week running workshops in California. And every time I come over here, I’m struck by the esteem in which two texts on language are held: the AP Stylebook (I mean, Stylebook? One word?), and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
To a Brit, the quasi-religious reverence these books seem to elicit in the USA is a bit odd. As a rule, I think in the UK we’re a bit more comfortable with the odd bit of linguistic jaywalking. So while I’ve got nothing against following the rules, or the AP Stylebook, if you’re looking for some rules to follow, please, please, please ignore the spurious ramblings of Strunk & White.
The brilliant Language Log has been skewering this ‘horrid little compendium’ better, and for longer, than I ever could (and it’s telling that they file their Strunk & White blogs under ‘prescriptivist poppycock’). But the basic point is this: their rules are so arbitrary and constraining that they can’t even follow them themselves.
And it’s why, when we give our clients writing guidelines, they’re just that; not rules, not laws, and not always right.
Hey, banks – if you want a killer reason why your brand needs a tone of voice, and why you should use it every time you write to your customers, it’s this: it’ll help stop your customers falling foul of phishing emails.
Why? Because online fraudsters can’t write. Most phishing emails are full of grammatical errors, clunky phrases and – deliberately or not – are written in a strangulated formal tone.
Even the quickest nose around banksafeonline’s archive of phishing emails turns up a whole crop. How about this from an attack on Co-operative Bank’s customers:
‘The Co-operative Bank P.L.C. Internet Banking Security Department has been receiving complaints from our customers for unauthorised uses of the Co-Operative bank accounts. As a result, we are temporarily shutting down some selected Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner.’
‘For unauthorised uses of’ is just bad grammar. And the strangulated formality of accounts ‘perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time...’ is just weird.
A recent phishing email sent to Halifax customers crams the same two bad habits into a single sentence:
‘Important notice: note that your Security Question and Answer should be match correctly for proper re-verification, in order to avoid service suspension.’
Of course, most people who fall foul of these attacks aren’t reading the phishing emails in this kind of detail. And that’s the point. At a quick read, people obviously just get a general feeling that these emails are genuine.
That doesn’t say much for our impression of how banks communicate with their customers. But it does present a clear opportunity: if you make sure the way you write to customers is clear, natural and distinctive to your brand – especially for ‘unsexy’ day-to-day emails – then these shabbily-written phishing emails will instantly feel wrong to your customers. They’re much more likely to think ‘hang on, this doesn’t sound like my bank...’.
Ironically, the phishing email that prompted me to write this post was this one, purporting to be from HM Revenue and Customs:
‘After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity, we have determined that you are eligible to receive a tax refund of 468.50 GBP. Please submit the tax refund request and click here by having your tax refund sent to your bank account in due time.’
Its pompous and formal tone sounded exactly like how HMRC actually sound. Which is really dangerous for them.
PS: Hey, phishers! Ever thought about signing up to one of our writing workshops?
Get lost. We only use our powers for good.