9th May 2014

Choosing your words…

Language must have been quite close to the front of my mind since my last blog post about the Bad Grammar Awards, because I have spotted quite a few articles on the subject in the papers over the past week.

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The first was a diatribe against semantic change and what the author viewed as ‘sloppy English’. The writer helpfully included a list of words that he felt were misused, such as ‘access’ used as a verb instead of a noun, ‘battle’ as a transitive, rather than an intransitive, verb, or even the use of ‘aggravate’ as a synonym of ‘annoy’, instead of ‘to make worse’. The second article, on the other hand was more of a denunciation of such writers and thinkers who see language evolution as deterioration, favouring a more ‘live and let live’ approach to the use of English.

These diametrically opposed opinions got me thinking about my own point of view. Those of you who read my last blog will no doubt know that I am generally of a descriptive bent, feeling greater affinity with the position of the latter author than the former. Lexicographers and grammarians have for centuries sought to pin down the English language, define and classify the precise meaning and function of every word and part of speech, not necessarily to better understand how it works, but to preserve it like a specimen in formaldehyde.

But English, just like every other language, is subject to constant evolution, with the meanings of individual words and the construction of phrases and sentences changing with every generation. Language never stands still, and the best dictionaries and lexicons are no more than a snapshot of a language at a particular point in time, not the definitive gold standards some people intend them to be.

However, when writing PR content, web copy or marketing collateral, brands cannot afford to be descriptive in their use of English. This kind of content must be able to convey brand messages and key information clearly and concisely, so it is vital that it is written in language that as many people as possible can understand.

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When communicating with very specific, niche audiences, it can sometimes be beneficial to use technical terminology for B2B content, or colloquial phrases for certain consumer products. By literally ‘speaking their language’, a business can build its brand identity, positioning itself as a company that understands its customers’ unique needs.

But on the whole, Standard English, as defined in dictionaries and grammar guides (my personal preference is for the Oxford English dictionary and the Economist Style Guide), jargon- and slang-free, is the ideal medium for communicating with the broadest audience. Offering a common dialect understood by the vast majority of native speakers, and, unfreighted with perceived links to specific and narrow sectors of society, Standard English ensures no part of a brand’s target audience is alienated unnecessarily.

Understanding each of its target audiences and talking to them in their own specific languages can boost the impact of a business’s brand messaging, but this is not always practical or even desirable, particularly when communicating the same information to multiple demographics. Standard English exists precisely for this kind of situation, offering a useful way to reach out to as many people as possible, so brands should make use of it. A good dictionary and style guide is vital to ensure businesses choose the right words for the right situation, avoiding the ire of the language police.

And remember, if your business is in any doubt about the language it uses for its audiences you should talk to your PR experts. It’s one of the many things we’re here for!

By Michael Wood, senior B2B copy writer