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issue 40

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Training Bulletin Issue 40

Are you hitting the moving target?

Twitter, Facebook, texting: whether you embrace them or not, they are changing the way we write. Many of us have horror stories of younger colleagues sending emails to clients with texting abbreviations or smileys, because as far as they know, this is normal usage.

Is this likely to change the way we use business English? Actually, the English we now consider correct would by many people have been thought vulgar and unacceptable not that long ago. Should you ever end a sentence with a preposition? Or start it with a conjunction, like this one? Quite a few things we say these days would not have been acceptable a few years ago.

To paraphrase James Nicoll, English doesn’t so much borrow from other languages as pursue them down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. The history of English is fascinating and you don’t need to be terribly scholarly to learn why we have some bizarre spelling and pronunciation.

Hotel or ‘otel?

What about happy and honest? When do you or don’t you pronounce the ‘h’? It depends partly on the origin of the word and how long it has been in the language. Words like hotel, hour, honour, honest and hospital came into English from French around the Renaissance or later. In many cases, we have kept the French usage of not pronouncing the ‘h’ – hour, honour, honest. In others, like hospital and horror, we have anglicised the pronunciation. Older readers may remember that hotel did not sound the ‘h’ a long time ago but mostly does now.

Words like horse, his, her, hen, hunt, hand, house and happy have been in English since the early second millennium, and came from Norse or early German. We pronounce the ‘h’ of all such words. (An added complication in English is that dropping the ‘h’ also depends on class and regional accent.)

To boldly go where no business writer has gone before

Should you split the infinitive? The infinitive is the verb form that has the word ‘to’ in front of it, usually used following another verb: I hope to hear, I want to know, they need to leave. For a long time, the rule beaten into generations of schoolchildren was that the world would end if they ever split an infinitive, that is, put another word between the to and the verb, like this: they need to quickly leave.

Life and this newsletter are too short to go into the origins of this rule – historically the split infinitive was more acceptable, then it began to be considered a sign of poor education. As America was colonised before this transition, Americans have always considered split infinitives acceptable. A change of heart on this side of the pond was signalled by the OED 2007 edition, which considers that split infinitives are now an acceptable alternative usage.

If you are after a more definitive answer, I can offer these:

Pedantry up with which I will not put

Should you end sentences with prepositions? Prepositions are words like to, of, in, up, at and so on. Or start them with conjunctions? Conjunctions are words like and, or, but, so.

Again, the traditional and formal rule is to do neither. With the modern trend to less formal writing, we increasingly see this broken. Your best bet is to adapt to the circumstances: keep to the rule when writing more formal documents but not worry about it so much for informal ones. Marketing material is more likely to be written in a casual, conversational voice so is a place where you can sound a bit less formal.

‘Verbing’ nouns

Some of us might cringe at statements like ‘We need to incentivise our staff.’ But would we be as bothered by ‘I will contact you tomorrow’? Using nouns (things) as verbs (actions) is not new, but it tends to be only the newer usages that annoy the pedants among us. Text, message, leverage, access, medal are all poor helpless nouns that are now forced to labour as verbs.

When this re-purposing has been with us longer, we have forgotten that the words in question were originally only nouns, and happily accept them as verbs: action, impact, contact, access to name a few.

This is a trend that is not going to go away. You can choose to avoid the more recent or extreme constructions such as ‘I’ll IM you later’ (Instant Message), but it’s harder to know about some of the verbed nouns that have been with us longer and it seems perhaps excessively correct to avoid using them. Again, consider the formality of the document and of your reader.

All Plain Words trainers can advise you on what is current or old-fashioned usage, regardless of which subject you are interested in: click here for a list of all our courses.

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Editor recommends

If you want an amusing read about the way English has evolved, try Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue. Mr Bryson is a very entertaining writer and the book is easy to read but still full of fascinating facts about the origin of English.

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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