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?
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.
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.
* Cut it out
Currently the most overused phrases are:
at the end of the day
hit the ground running
on the same page
get the ball rolling
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?)
There are several reasons why you shouldn’t use full-stops on your social media posts and texts…
In Poland they even have a term for it: “kropka nienawiści” (it means “dot of hate”)
In the same way that you shouldn’t use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS on posts and texts — because FULL CAPS is like the sender is yelling (we don’t need more yelling in our lives, do we?) — the full stop (or period, if that’s your bag) is about closing communication. If you use it, readers will ask: Why are they closing dialogue down? Don’t they like me? Don’t they want me to reply? Why don’t they want to open it up?
If you’re over forty, you may not “get” this, but it’s true, nonetheless. If you think about it, the words on a page (or screen) are just code. The end point of a statement or a command is a dot (written in code). If you don’t think of it that way (perhaps because you have been taught to respect “good old English grammar”) you might have to adjust your point of view…
Once you recognise that stopping dialogue with a dot on a page has immense power and is all about control, restraint and containment, you will understand how coercive and confrontational a dot on a screen can seem (to some).
Please note that I am not for a moment recommending that you abandon grammar in your formal written work. But is it sacrilege to live without full-stops when thumbing out a one-liner or delivering a speedy post?
I’m like you, I prefer good grammar. I think rules clarify things. However, you can ditch the full stop in the following examples:
* A full-stop ending means the termination of conversation. Is this how you want to leave things? If you want the conversation to continue, don’t turn it off by using a stop! A stop is like saying “end of”
* A full stop means end of to a Gen Z reader. She or He will interpret this as snappish. Did you mean to come over tetchy?
* If there is only one sentence in the message box, you may leave it unpunctuated
* If you finish a one-line post or text with an emoticon, you don’t need a punctuation as well 😃
* When reading (aloud) we use a point for pauses. If it’s a one-line speech, we won’t need a long pause at the end, right?
* A full stop goes at the end of a complete idea, but if there is only one complete idea to read, why is it necessary?
Why are the most irritatingly ignorant people also the most sure of their opinions?
It’s the D-K effect…
You wouldn’t surprise if I told you that many stupid people think they are smart. But let’s be clear, self-confidence is crucial for human survival and is part of our evolutionary development as a species. But there is a famous adage: “The more you know, the less you think you know — and the less you know, the more you think you know...”
the DK effect
In psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive deviation from “the norm” where people with low ability overestimate their ability. But there is also a reverse effect that materializes when highly competent people underestimate their ability/performance (they put undue pressure on themselves, for example, to pass exams or get good grades) and this in turn gets them more qualified so even less sure of themselves.
Dunning and Kruger initially set out to test an hypothesis of ‘illusory superiority’ but what they actually found surprised them. They discovered that some of their subjects both overestimated and also underestimated their own abilities. Rather than confirming the original hypothesis i.e. inferior people believe themselves to be superior — in fact their test subjects were often (equally) susceptible to underestimating their intellectual capacity as they were to exaggerating it. Basically, it was established that when taken as a whole, the general population perceives itself as close to average.
So Donald Trump (to take a random example) suggests that his two biggest assets are: “My mental stability and being, like, really smart…” But he’s also likely to riff something along the lines of: “I’m not a doctor … I’m a person who has a good you-know-what…” (while pointing to his head).
Perhaps, on some level, we all struggle with some kind of internal D-K because expectation (and ego) are the main drivers of intellect and expression. If we do not develop overt self-confidence, it is very likely that we will fail in our chosen tasks. It has even been asserted that suggesting some people suffer from the D-K effect — while others do not — is like saying that some people suffer from fear, while others don’t.
So, be aware of your inner D-K and try not to let superiority/inferiority take over… Maintain the balance!