Why I hate language snobbery
Liz, April 28, 2017
I opened a newsletter from a rival copywriting company today. It was full of “helpful” advice about how to not embarrass yourself by muddling words. It also tried to kick off a debate on when and where it’s OK to correct someone else’s grammar.
So I’m just going to put it out there: I hate it, HATE it, when language gets talked about as an elitist set of rules that can only be accessed by a privileged few.
Here’s the thing. Grammar isn’t some kind of uber-complex form of Debretts. It’s something nearly every human being on the planet uses, easily and fluidly every day, without even thinking about it.
It’s also something that a very small number of people on the planet get sniffy and snobby about – and use to try to make other people feel insecure and small. And I’m fed up of it. It’s bullying, it’s ugly and it makes people afraid to experiment and to enjoy.
It’s nitpicky nastiness that does nothing for team morale, productivity or the bottom line.
If I’m running a workshop and I can see someone’s struggling with a point of grammar – or they’re getting in a pickle over spelling or something, I don’t make a big deal of it. Why? Because I can explain any “rules” easily enough for anyone to quickly understand. And I’m also quick to tell people about the things I struggle with – and emphasise that rules can be broken too. As a result, people leave feeling empowered and able to take their organisations in new directions.
I think by far the more productive (as well as kinder and happier) approach is to harness the power of language for the many wonderful things it can help organisations achieve…
Developing a single approach to the way your organisation uses language lets you communicate your organisation or brand’s personality consistently – reminding your audiences what makes you different and special. This means your audiences won’t just recognise you from your visual identity, but from your written and spoken communications too.
The language your organisation uses has the power to build relationships. Of course, if you want it to, it can feel impersonal, robotic and like your customers don’t matter to you. But given that this is the exact opposite of what every company on the planet wants to achieve, the great news is that language can also be made to feel warm, inclusive and like it cares.
Bringing about cultural change
I think this is one of the most exciting aspects of what language can be used to achieve. Until recently, the tools used to bring about change in organisations were spreadsheets, diagrams and sometimes manuals and instruction books. And because of this, I believe, change was seen as something incredibly difficult to bring about. But if instead of simply telling people what needs to change, you create a simple framework that everyone gets and embraces, you can move mountains.
Persuading and motivating
A lot of other organisations are competing for your customers’ attention. So your communications have their work cut out. Imaginative, beautifully crafted language can – and does – cut through. We’ve created campaigns for pension companies that have resulted in more than £2m being transferred in one morning. And our direct mail for another client is so effective, they have to increase contact centre staffing levels on the days that new communications go out.
Sometimes, clarity can mean the difference between life and death. Or between your customers using your products correctly or incorrectly. If you work in a regulated industry, it can also mean the difference between compliance and big fines. At the moment, we’re rewriting an insurance policy document to make it completely understandable at first read (which, by the way, will make the company that produces it feel more trustworthy… which should generate repeat custom). We’ve also helped energy companies to explain tariffs, pension companies to explain statements and companies going through industrial action to explain what’s happening and what people’s rights are.
Enjoying your work
One of the things that upsets me about the grammar police is that they stomp all of the fun out of language. I do a lot of work with contact centres and it always makes me sad when, inevitably, someone introduces themselves by saying: “I’m rubbish at English…” I always come back with: “I bet you’re not.” And so far, I haven’t been wrong. What we usually discover is that school wasn’t a great place for that person – or a random teacher somewhere in the past made them feel rubbish. So they continued through life thinking their English was indeed, rubbish. And yet contact centres are full of people who communicate naturally and fluidly. They could be teaching the rest of us – whether they know what a subordinate clause is or not. Grammar Nazism squeezes the joy out of communications. It makes people unhappy. And unhappy people take more sick days and expect less of themselves in the workplace.
So my final words to the language snobs and grammar Nazis. So you know what gerunds and hanging prepositions are? Well bloody done you. But here’s an idea for you – how about you use your insight to inspire others, to help them feel more capable and able to express themselves than ever before? How about you use that in-depth knowledge to break a few rules and do something different and special?
Those, I think, are the only things worth talking about.
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