Observation on language

I see a curious difference between the US and the UK (and their respective satellites) in the way their written language is viewed and treated. Just considering the e-mails of people I interact with at work, I could readily pull up a half-dozen examples showing a US-trained colleague using bad spelling and worse grammar, versus a Commonwealth-trained colleague vividly using a wide spectrum of vocabulary in complete sentences. It’s prejudice, but so far my experience confirms this black-and-white model.

American primary and secondary education aren’t bad, no matter what TV tries to make you believe. There may be differences in emphasis which explain the difference. Maybe one system emphasizes creative writing more than the other, which may have more of a focus on reading comprehension and analysis. Perhaps. It’s all good.

What was new to me in recent years, is a general hostility towards well-formed, “long-winded” writing. It manifests itself not just in work e-mails, and I think it’s at least partially responsible for people’s lack of love for their language. If you see language as a means towards an end, it’s no surprise you use the simplest, shortest words to get your point across to as wide an audience as you can.

There’s pressure everywhere to use words sparingly, and people are not ashamed to ask for bite-sized, pre-digested summaries like “executive summaries” and “elevator speeches” (how I hate that term). I think if an executive doesn’t take the time to understand a complex topic outside of the time he or she has allotted to riding the elevator, it’s probably better not to bother them with it at all.

Have you noticed the rise of the “quick start guide” as an abbreviated addendum to products’ user or installation manuals? What’s that all about? Can’t be bothered to take the five minutes to read the manual? Not that I mind quick-start guides, but I think they’re a symptom of laziness regarding language. Reading is seen as a chore. There are two ways to reduce that chore, and the authors of the user manuals have chosen to reduce the number of words. The better alternative is to improve the quality of writing – though I admit a user manual for a vacuum cleaner does pose a challenge.

At work, I find that people tend to keep their communication short to the point of mangling their language with bullet points and incomplete sentences, but they’re perfectly happy to write long reports. And those reports often do tend to be long-winded, with copy-paste liberally used to copy swathes of text from brochures or technical papers.

To sum it up, I think people here don’t mind reading and writing if it’s an explicit piece of work. A good indicator would probably be “is reading or writing this something that could potentially be billable time in a customer project”.

Such a utilitarian view of language is a bit sad.

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