Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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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’.