Broken English

March 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

When I teach Business Writing, I try to teach people that every bit of communication that leaves a business impacts upon its brand. So you can pay millions to ad agencies and PR agencies and publicists, but all of that expense is undone by the misspelt, badly written emails that go out from your employees’ computers, or the presentations to clients that are riddled with grammar and spelling  mistakes.

I go so far as to say that even the sign on a cubicle door proclaiming that a toilet is out of order is business writing if your clients come into contact with it. And given how many times I’ve been in offices where the sign says “Out of Oder” (sic) I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch. And yes, that particular error amuses me far more than it should.

But it got me thinking about plain language again. Why are things so often “Out of Order”? Why aren’t they just broken? Does calling something out of order make it any less non-functional? It is really so offensive to call something broken? And why do we feel the need to sanitise (if you’ll pardon the pun) everything?

I have the same problem with the endless euphemisms for death. Whenever I hear someone say: “He lost his father yesterday,” it takes every ounce of my self-control not to remark, “Careless!”

Actually, his father died. He did not expire, pass on, pass away, go home, or shuffle off his mortal coil. (Only Shakespeare can get away with that last one.) His father died. Calling it any of those other things really doesn’t soften the blow at all. The person is still dead, and their loved ones are still grieving. And saying someone has gone home is particularly confusing.

I imagine by now you think I’m a raving lunatic, and quite possibly you’re right. I just think we have over-euphemised (yes, I know that’s not a word) the language we use so much that we hardly know what we’re talking about anymore. In our attempts to sound businesslike, professional, educated, or even “fancy”, we just make our communication more and more cloudy. And that, my friends, means that many of us communicate in broken English.

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