Is it offensive? How to control the language we thought was (once) okay

A BBC sports commentator has been suspended because he used common phrases during a sports match that his bosses deemed were badly considered. This was not language that was discriminatory or hateful, or even loaded… it was just slack writing and lazy speaking.

The BBC (and most other stations and outlets) publish a list of phrases that their presenters, broadcasters & writers ought to avoid, for fear of being accused of offending or disrespecting part of the audience. I will not get into politics here, I just want to approach this touchy subject as a person who uses words professionally, ​speaking to another professional communicator (you) to ask how we might (jointly) tighten-up our writing so we restrict the use of shabby phraseology?

I once attended a high-level editorial meeting and a thoughtful member of staff (one of the brightest graduates that I knew at the time) used the phrase “nitty gritty” in his sentence, during a presentation. No one complained when he used the term (why would they?) But the chairperson upbraided the guy. Why?

should you use the phrase nitty gritty?

Our boss explained, to all of us, that Nitty Gritty is believed to have originated as a term used by slave traders to refer to the most useless women and low value slaves left at the bottom of transport ships heading to the New World.

The lower decks contained those that were covered in lice and grit.

I recall that the guy in question was unnerved and unsettled by the swatting he received from the boss… he had never, for a moment, considered himself to be racially insensitive. And my colleagues and I sympathized with the guy because it could so easily have been any of us using the same term. So what had he done wrong?

This guy was no fool, he was what some might call “classically educated,” publicly schooled and an Oxbridge top honours student… yet he used ill-considered language. He spoke to me after the event, still embarrassed, and very contrite, he said: “I should have known better […] It will not happen again. I feel foolish and disappointed. Disappointed in myself.”

I imagine the BBC sports pundit — who has been suspended by the BBC — feels the same. Because he knows they employ him to use words properly. He is supposed to be a master of wordplay; yet he is guilty of poor wording.

Note: This is about getting to grips with shabby phraseology. It is not about liberal agendas or crazed political correctness — it’s about the skillful use of language. If you don’t want to be confident & proficient with your language, you won’t get much out of this presentation.

exact words are hard to live by
Exact words are hard to live by

So here are six tips to help you stop making the same mistake as my friend:

* Be certain of origins

Don’t use informal nouns or phrases unless you are sure of their origin. A simple baseline for decision making should be, don’t know? Find out!
Use: https://www.phrases.org.uk/

The payoff is that your language will become tighter as you discover alternate (and healthier) phrases that will add vitality to your communication.

* Eliminate idioms from your diet

Let’s be clear: idioms are formulaic, unremarkable, and sometimes hackneyed. Your language should be dynamic and inventive. I’ve heard people defend the BBC’s sports expert, saying he used “shortcuts everyone understands” and suggesting that he has to think “on his feet” (oops!) and speak quickly when describing a fast-moving game. This is all true (I wouldn’t like to do his job) but I think that using worn metaphors is not particularly ingenious. It is not expressive. I might even dare to suggest it’s lazy. I think it is better to eliminate “stock phrases” and idioms from your diet of words. I suggest you create some original terminology.

Yes, being articulate is an effort isn’t it? Maybe that’s why so many communicators (people who should know better) turn to overused old chestnuts (oops, there’s another one!)

* Alter your point of view

As you plan your words, imagine you are a member of your audience. It can be anyone you like (it doesn’t have to be a “fringe” member). What are their hobbies and pastimes? What’s their favourite tipple or meal? Where do they prefer to go on holiday? Are they animal lovers? What car do they drive?

I suppose you might be saying right now: “how can I know all these things?” But this is an exercise in “getting into another mindset” and I don’t don’t we do enough of it when we’re planning our communications. If we put ourselves “into the mind” of our audience we will begin to see how they view things and what makes them tick; we will start to use language that has more power & influence with them, because it relates to their values.

bar room boorishness
Are you being too chummy with your audience?

* Cut it out

Currently the most overused phrases are:

  • at the end of the day
  • hit the ground running
  • state-of-the-art
  • on the same page
  • get the ball rolling
  • game changer

If you have used any of the above, you are not in a state of disgrace (we have all used them, me included, from time-to-time) and they are just minor misdemeanors, i.e. trivial language offences — nevertheless, these overused phrases weaken our style and allow those mischievous and ill-considered little phrases to enter our lexicons.

* Edit for style

Needless to say, you must edit, edit, edit.

Edit for style, edit for cliche, and edit for stereotypes. If you use ProWriting Aid or Grammarly, you will see they include tools to help you find and replace tactless language, tedious metaphors, and unconscious bias. But do you use the tools? Do you edit, edit, edit?

* Alter your voice

Are you being too chummy with your audience? Yes, of course you want to be popular. You want to please everyone in the room. But there will always be some folks, perhaps hidden in the corners, who don’t appreciate your brand of jocular down-to-earth humor and might object to your cheekiness, flashiness or brashness. You might insist you are “just stating things the way they are.” But there’s no need to be flippant or ill-mannered just because you “want to please”, right?

If you find you are simplifying your language (and message) merely to please the most vulgar & surly people in society, then you’re not only disappointing & discouraging the wider audience, you’re also letting yourself down (this sounds like one of Mike Brady’s quotes doesn’t it, huh?)

Any comments? tweet me @neilmach

@neilmach 2020 ©

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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