The importance of having the write stuff

Business, Editor's Choice | Fri 6 Jan | Author – Business & Finance typewriter grammar

Fergal Tobin advises on polishing up your written communications.

As Warren Buffett reminds us, all business writing should be simple, clear and unambiguous. That means keeping to the basics of grammar and correct usage. Clarity of expression indicates clarity of thought – whereas sloppy, jargon-laden prose comes across as unprofessional.

To express a thing lucidly just requires a little care and attention to detail, like anything else in business.

It is generally a bad idea to be too prescriptive about English grammar and usage. Laying down the law, as if you were an authority on whatever point is vexing you, is most likely to flush out someone who can prove that the usage you deplore was used by Shakespeare or Milton.

English is very much a language of the streets and of the marketplace. It is governed principally by usage. This means that if enough people make the same ‘mistake’ often enough, over time the ‘mistake’ becomes the norm and the old usage either becomes archaic or obsolete.

So, while there are rules they are open to review. There is no Acadamie Anglaise trying, as the French attempt, to fix the language fast by adjudicating on what is and is not correct usage. That said, at any given time there are words and usages in play that go against the grain of what is, for now at least, regarded as the correct form. Here are a few current examples.

BBES IN THE BONNET

The word ‘fewer’ could well disappear from the language, as so many people use less when strictly speaking fewer is preferable. And yes, I’m well aware that less passes the Shakespeare-Milton test. That said, both words are still available to us, so it is best to use them as the language’s evolutionary process has decreed.

What’s the difference between less and fewer? Simple: less is what you can measure and fewer is what you can count. There is less water in a pint pot than in a quart pot, but fewer people watch Bohemians than Arsenal. It’s one of those distinctions, almost witty in its self-indulgence, which gives a sort of mild spice to the language.

It is generally a bad idea to be too prescriptive about English grammar and usage

Now here is a personal bee in the bonnet. Disinterested does not mean uninterested. I read a Manchester United match report some time ago that said that “Rooney looked disinterested”. No, he didn’t: he looked uninterested or bored.

End of. If you are disinterested you may well be very interested in the subject matter, but have no personal involvement or bias – for example it would be most important that the referee was disinterested in the match, in order to act as a fair and impartial judge of proceedings .

fergal tobin

Fergal Tobin, WriteProper

UPHOLDING PRINCIPLES

Using principle where the correct usage is principal is shameful, not least when seen – as I can attest – in posh broadsheet newspapers (no ‘professional’ journo should make this howler).

The principal of a school will have principles by which that school is run, or at least one hopes so.

English is a borrowing language, with tributaries flowing in from America, Australia, the West Indies, the sub-continent, and even a few loan words from Gaelic and Welsh

Likewise, you can have the principal of a company – the largest shareholder or chief executive – or of a professional practice. They will have principles that govern their behaviour.

English is a borrowing language, with tributaries flowing in from America, Australia, the West Indies, the sub-continent, and even a few loan words from Gaelic and Welsh. Thus the endless invitations to have a nice day (US) or else to be told no worries (Aussie soap operas, thanks a lot).

A recent shift, whose source is not clear to me, is to answer “I’m good” in response to “how are you”. What’s wrong with “I’m well”? After all, you can feel awfully well after you’ve not been good.


About the author: Fergal Tobin is a retired publisher and the proprietor of WriteProper, a one-morning workshop aimed at improving the written English of staff in businesses, trade associations, professional bodies and the public service.