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issue 56

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Training Bulletin Issue 56

“Oops, sorry, my bad,” replied someone as a mild apology for not having copied a colleague on an email.

How changes get into our language, in which many metaphors are mixed

Have you ever described something as a train wreck or even an epic fail? What about a facepalm? And did you know that the last is included in the online Oxford Dictionary, both as a noun and a verb?

If a term is used by socially prominent people, or has some strong impact, usually by being funny, it tends to be picked up very quickly. This is just human nature – everyone wants to sound as if they are part of the in crowd.

Is there any point in trying, like King Canute, to stem the tide of change? And if we do let that tide wash over us, what of the flotsam and jetsam therein is worth picking up? Does ‘therein’ sound too old-fashioned? What's the difference between flotsam and jetsam anyway?

These questions, and many more, are answered below.

The times, they are a-changing…and always have been

Only dead languages never change. English is like Frankenstein's monster. It lives, and it's made up of bits from all over. A story on the BBC News magazine pointed out that we continue merrily to adopt words from other languages. These days, however, the balance has changed in that other languages on the whole adopt even more words from English. These words tend to be related to work or modern technology, such as internet, salary, computer, business and meeting. So we're getting our revenge, if you like to think of it that way.

Because internet!

A major source of new usage these days is the internet, often from memes. This concept was defined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) and means ideas or images that spread from person to person via some form of mass media, rather like a contagious virus.

The construction, ‘because NOUN’ is a fairly recent one, becoming more noticeable over about the last 12 – 14 years. You would use it like this: “I couldn't get to work the other day because tube strike.”

The correct usage is to follow ‘because' with either something that could stand alone as a sentence (a finite clause) such as: “I couldn't get to work the other day because the tube was on strike,” or: “I couldn't get to work the other day because of the tube strike,” (a prepositional phrase.)

You can also use ‘because VERB' (Need coffee because flagging), or ‘because ADJECTIVE’ (I bought it because shiny!)

So should I be saying this?

Well, I like it, personally, but I wouldn't use it for business writing. It's worth distinguishing between formal and casual use though, and choosing what is appropriate for the situation and your reader. We make different clothing choices depending on where we are going and what we're doing; we can apply the same notion to the way we write and speak.

Jeans or dinner jacket?

English has always had a formal style – think of what has variously been called BBC English, Oxford English or even the Queen's English, Even Latin had Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin, the former being the language used in literature and the latter the everyday language that even orators used when they weren't orating.

So, to refer back to an earlier question, putting a word like ‘therein' into a fairly casually worded document is a bit like adding a little, formal touch such as a gold watch or a silk scarf to jeans and t-shirt: it gives it a bit of a flourish without changing the overall tone, IMHO (In My Humble Opinion.)

Uniform or dress code?

For business writing, this is like considering whether you put all your staff in uniform or set some sort of standard for what they should wear. A style guide defining how you prefer people to write is the equivalent of a dress code. We described the benefits of having a style guide in Newsletter 48. In it we gave specific examples of how to define your voice, ensure consistency, maximise correctness and set out company-specific usage.

(And in case you were thinking that having a style guide is a bit old and fusty, BuzzFeed – the internet's up-to-the-minute media and news site – released theirs earlier this week.)

So last year, darling

Should you, then, use any trendy internet memes in your work writing? To wring the very last out of our sartorial metaphor, adopting them wholesale might be a bit like trying to wear the stuff you see in designer catwalk shows. They are not clothes intended for everyday use. The only people who might try are likely to be in the fashion industry.

Marketing or advertising companies will be more likely facepalming or epic failing in attempts to sound cutting edge if they judge it's appropriate for their product or target market. Anyone else should proceed with caution: usage that's very up to the minute also tends to have a short shelf life and you will just sound daft spouting expressions that are past their use-by date.

Some things do become part of the language if people keep using them, so we may eventually be quite happily talking about getting our game face on (putting on a confident expression) or jumping the shark (going past the point of desperation in an attempt to stay popular.)

The meanings of those expressions may change by the time they are more universally adopted, though. Words do that: silly used to mean defenceless or helpless, fond once meant foolish, and vulgar now means something rather different from ‘of the people'. After all, the tie, that symbol of staid respectability, evolved from the cloth a labourer tied around his neck to mop up sweat. We have also looked at some of the ways writing has changed in Newsletter 40.

This issue covered changing pronunciation – dropping the ‘h’ or not, splitting infinitives, starting sentences with conjunctions and ending them with prepositions, using nouns as verbs.

One last thing, in case you were wondering

Flotsam is stuff found floating that was not intentionally thrown off a ship; jetsam is stuff that was jettisoned in an attempt to lighten a load and stay afloat.

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