Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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New world, lost words

Where the heck did we leave all those words that our grandparents used to know?

This blog is full of encouragement for taking a new (less structured) approach to writing. I advocate language that acknowledges migration, technology, community and change, so long as it upholds the golden goose: good communication.

But what is the fallout from stepping into a ‘new world’ of English? I guess vocabulary would be the biggest loser. Yes, we are inventing new words all the time (and at an increasingly faster rate). But more words are disappearing from use, without us even noticing.

These words haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth: we still have them in the dictionary. But fewer people can spell them, pronounce them, define them or use them in a sentence.

When was the last time that you dropped ‘piscivorous’, ‘dipsomaniacal’ or ‘uxorious’ into a conversation? I admit, I had to look up two of these words.

But we are not only discarding our traditional vocab. We are tampering with it too.

We are happy to use words that do not have the exact meaning we intend, because we don’t know we’re wrong. We usually make this error with words that sound vaguely alike, or are somewhat connected to the same topic.

Below are some words that I’ve seen used in the wrong sense (the left words in the pairs). Based on the context, I’ve guessed what the writer really means (the words on the right). Do you know the proper meaning of each word in these pairs?

misanthrope, misogynist

perspicacious, perspicuous

specious, spurious

verbose, voluble

loquacious, garrulous

naysayer, iconoclast

taciturn, laconic

circumspect, retrospect

Unless you have a solid (and quite formal) English vocabulary, this test is tricky. You may be confident about some of the words, but unsure about others. I’ve popped all the definitions below, to help you.

But, first, think about the length and breadth of your vocabulary. You’re definitely taking on dinky new words (probably short and tech based). Are they taking up mental space that used to store words of more than one or two syllables? And does it matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The definitions

misanthrope (someone who hates or mistrusts humanity), misogynist (someone who hates or mistrusts women)

perspicacious (able to easily understand, of good insight), perspicuous (clearly expressed, easily understood)

specious (seemingly plausible but actually wrong), spurious (false or fake)

verbose (using more words than needed), voluble (talking fluently and readily)

loquacious (talkative), garrulous (excessively talkative, particularly about trivial matters)

naysayer (a person is expresses themselves pessimistically or negatively), iconoclast (a person who attacks beliefs, institutions, traditions etc. for being wrong or superstitious)

taciturn (reserved in speech, uncommunicative), laconic (in the style of using few words, spare in expression)

circumspect (wary, unwilling to take a risk), retrospect (in light of the past)

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Testing English with native speakers

My family follows AFL footy, so the mention of swans immediately brings to mind the Sydney Swans footy team (and, of course, the feathered variety). But I recently read about a whole new use of the word for testing language: SWANS, meaning Sounds Wrong to A Native (see the Inkyfool blog post in ‘Out and about’). In other words, the best test for whether a word or expression is acceptable is whether it sounds okay to a native English speaker. Anything that sounds wrong probably is wrong. The idea is not to be hung up on grammar guides; rather, aim for natural sounding text.

A premise of this idea is that spoken English is an acceptable guide to sorting out good written English. And I mostly agree: I often ask my clients to say something aloud to check its tone and sense. This is a basically sound test, but we mustn’t rely on speech as our benchmark. Such reliance does not recognise the intrinsic differences between conversation and formal workplace writing. While our speech is taking on new words and phrases, and rapidly becoming less formal, our writing at work is more stagnant. We want clear, plain English, and we don’t want to bury our key messages, but we do want to set up our text as knowledgeable, trustworthy and true. So our text must show some hallmarks of established English grammar. And that is the point at which we return to SWANS: we want to use syntax and description that other people ‘hear’ as familiar and right.

But who are native speakers of English? In my other post dated 2 March 2014, I noted how different population groups can use English to circle the wagons, separating themselves from a mainstream. And many migrant groups and Indigenous Australians value a different syntax, and use pronouns and verbs quite differently from British English. Yet all these speakers, some native and some not, are entitled to contribute to the evolution of English. As our world grows in population but shrinks in accessibility, we may not be able to look to native English speakers to sign off on our language. So, for a workplace writer, perhaps a more reliable test than SWANS is SWMR: Sounds Wrong to My Readers. After all, your readers are whom you need to tap on the shoulder and say ‘hey, please listen to me’.


How many words to say hello?

I want to say hello but I don’t have time. I have to get onto explaining that this is a place for turning your writing into a tool for success at work. And everything I say has to use smart words because, like me, you won’t have time to waste. You may be reading this post on the way to work or as your last task of the day. Whatever you’re doing now, you’ll soon move on to something else. And that’s what your readers do too: they move on, and fast.

So, this blog is here to help you write faster, smarter and better. It is about you taking control of your writing to achieve things. I will focus on workplace writing (see my Training hub), but you can use many of my ideas for personal writing (even your own blog). Whatever your writing skills, and whatever your goals, I want you to take a step up. Start to think about how words are created, used and manipulated in our small world, and how you need to be part of that writing evolution from your own desk.

And now that’s done, I can say hello and welcome!