Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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Is there a standard English for work?

TRAINING UPDATE: I have uploaded some grammar modules to the Words a waiting section of the training hub. And I will add more grammar modules over the next few weeks, along with modules on expression and sentence structure. The Words at work workbooks are under development.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking at other commentary on English grammar. I recently read a blog post (see the GrammarBook.com link in ‘Out and about’) that questioned what modern writing style—particularly the idiosyncrasies of literature—means for ‘a dwindling cadre of fuddy-duddies’ who try to uphold standard English. It talks about authors opting for the colloquial and not losing sleep over ‘erudite technicalities’. The discussion ends by describing the trend as a nightmare for ‘language watchdogs’.

Of course, the notion of ‘standard English’ is debatable. And I’m not sure anyone can claim to be its watchdog. Any such guard of the king’s English a hundred years ago would today be considered an utter bore, and pompous too. We simply don’t speak with the same formality, and certainly not with the same number of rules. As the strictures of society have softened, English has morphed into a much less certain creature.

What does this evolution mean for authors? In some ways, it is a ‘get out of jail free’ card; often, you may use whatever expression takes your fancy, so long as your readers understand it in the same way (and share the fancy rather than feel distaste at your bold wordsmithery). As an editor, I don’t always love grammar being strewn by the wayside of some more inventive language. But, as a reader, I rejoice at the visions and feelings that writers create with their word juggling. So, for literature in particular, the fall of grammar is far from a ‘nightmare’. Indeed, it has nurtured new forms of writing, such as postmodernism.

But what about workplace writing? I have less definite views on how to treat grammar at work, for two reasons. First, a worker writes on behalf of their employer, so the text is really the voice of the organisation. That is, the authorship is two-fold. So, alongside the worker’s writing technique, a workplace text must account for the branding, assumptions, preferences and demeanor of the organisation. While this duality is not always easily handled, it exists more easily when all the writers in a workplace use a common grammatical approach. And that approach sits more comfortably with readers when it is common to them too. In this case, our more traditional grammar is an obvious fit.

My second point is that language, being a social construct, will necessarily change at the margins of society first, before those changes drift towards our social institutions. For this reason, youth and other population sub-groups distinguish their status as the minority, outcast, newbie, young Turk or ‘other’, or however else they may see themselves, by speaking differently from ‘the rest of us’. And government and business stay well clear of those language identifiers. Eventually, however, some of the lingo ends up in general speech, and from there it finds its way into dictionaries and, finally, workplace writing. In other words, as a society, we are always succumbing to some changes in our grammar, but workplaces usually succumb last.

The upshot? Workplace writing is easier when you stick to the grammar rules of your organisation’s style guide. But be prepared to pull at the leash when you know breaking a rule will enhance your text and be accepted by your readers.