It is reported in London that William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, has been shocked by the poor spelling and jargon-infested English he finds in notes from his diplomats.
Such obviously bad English isn’t reserved for government or Britain, nor is it limited to writing. Briefly, on speech: We can still clean up our speech — say more with less, speak directly and clearly — and if we do so, we’ll find we’re more honest and better understood. But speech, particularly in person, conveys more avenues to meaning, making the word selection less vital.
In writing, of course, we know that words matter, even as we have moments of poor or bloated writing. What I’m talking about is an awareness of the smaller issues, the word (or word choice) here and the word there that clog up our thoughts. At my company, for instance, while we’re not perfect, there’s a heightened sensitivity to the issue because, well, the name demands that we’re intelligently delivering news that’s to the point.
What do I mean? Everyone has particular weaknesses, all contributing to a bevy of words that mean less than the sum of their parts — most of the time. For instance, when we use jargon over plain language, or write wordy phrases such as “create a new ___”; “spearhead the ___”; “he is currently a ___”; “the company had a very poor quarter”; or “He will have to hurry in order to catch the bus.”
We also diminish our communication in English, if not English itself, by false authority, as John McIntyre has pointed out repeatedly, particularly here. By this, I mean, going too far in avoiding jargon by banning the nouning of verbs, mistaking guidelines or specific rules for absolutes, or sheer invention of rules based on one person’s taste. We’d also go wrong, too, if we took my examples above and applied them universally without thought or context.
There’s no “solution,” as we like to find to head off such thorny, contextual problems. We’d be wrong to think there is. Rather, there’s the will to try harder, to write and speak clearly, and to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Doing so will benefit our communications and our lives.