Writing Style

Your writing style and use of language are important and need serious thought because they matter to your audience, you know, those people whose opinions you’re trying to sway.

Don’t throw away your opportunity by being bloody-minded over the words you use. Develop a consistency and ensure all who speak for your organisation stick to it.

Does it sound silly to you to leave the ‘s’ off the plural of Maori words? Would a plant shop sell ‘100 Totaras’ on special this week or would it sell ‘100 Totara’? Would local ‘Maoris’ be interested in a genealogy Web site or would local ‘Maori’ be interested? Would ‘Pakeha’ or ‘Pakehas’ be affected by your event? Do ‘Kiwis’ love their rugby or do ‘Kiwi’ love their rugby? This is your press release and convention has moved from pluralising Maori words by adding an s, to dropping it.

Is it god, or God, christian or Christian, muslim or Muslim? Capitalise it and be done with it but don’t get carried away. Government departments scrupulously capitalise every noun that remotely names their work. Thus they capitalise: Government, Minister, Department, Report. On this style please yourself. It can start to look ridiculous. However, be consistent.

If you talk about a third person do you care about pronouns? That is, do you use ‘they’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘he/she’? For example, in this sentence: “If you telephone a reporter, impress upon ‘him’ or ‘her’ or ‘them…'” ‘Them’ is grammatically wrong but many writers use it to avoid having to choose between him or her when referring to a third person. They’re fine when it’s definitely a male or female but they often retreat to ‘them’ when they don’t know. Again, choose a style and stick with it.

Sexist language, once the norm, is now avoided in formal writing but still used conversationally by many. So do you feel most comfortable describing people who take fish from the sea as ‘fishers’, ‘fishermen’ or ‘fisherpersons’? And if you agree that ‘fisherpseron’ is the most appropriate then you’d be bound to use snowperson instead of snowman to remain consistent. Who fights fires these days – fire fighters, firemen or (groan) fire persons? The simplest way out is to find an alternative, neutral word. If you can’t, read a newspaper and see what they do and mimic them. They’ve been through all these debates of language and gender and have probably settled on a common-sense solution. And, by the way, gender refers to language. In French it still does. A table is feminine and a cat is masculine as a noun, regardless of its sex. Call it la chat (feminine) instead of le chat (masculine) and see the French smile (the former, incorrect version, is the equivalent of ‘pussy’ in New Zealand with all its innuendo). So, use the word gender when you mean it. If you mean the differences between the sexes then say so, don’t be trapped into speaking university babble as in “gender studies” or “gender equity”. It’s the battle of the sexes, surely, not the battles of the genders.

Develop a thesaurus and decide on how to use such words as crippled versus disabled; old versus elderly; fat versus obese; poor versus lower socioeconomic and the like.

This terminology and retreat into euphemism really matters to people. There was once a fast food company called Kentucky Fried Chicken that changed its name to KFC. People still get fat eating its products to excess but maybe they feel better because they never read the word ‘fried’ in company literature. The Crippled Children’s Society changed its name to CCS. Government departments have started calling immigrants to New Zealand from Pacific Islands, “Pacific Peoples”. Someone, somewhere decided that “Pacific Islanders” was a pejorative. Who knows why but the examples illustrate that words and their use are extremely important to how people feel about the way you conduct your business.

Use of euphemisms can become stifling and make for tedious reading because it’s a code that tries to avoid describing things as they are. However, it’s the impression you make on your customers that counts, not your private preferences. If you think that raw words are objectionable to your audience then by all means wrap them in euphemisms. Don’t risk having them pause and think: “He shouldn’t be using that word.” You’ve lost the flow; they’ve lost their concentration and maybe their sympathy for you. Your message may also be lost on them.

That said, avoid some of the silliest babble that surfaced from the pop departments of some universities in North America. Anyone describing short people as “vertically challenged” deserves ridicule.

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