Language Chops

There’s language and then there’s language.
Some people still live in the past, with their eye on the proper way of speaking and writing English.
Sure you need to have a good grasp of your tenses and you need to stop making silly mistakes in English. But having knowledge of the language doesn’t mean you can make it in the everyday world.
Many folks still think they need to write like their English teachers of yore to be able to stand proud in the world today.
Sorry to burst your bubble but if you write like that, no one will ever read your work.

Of course I don’t want to see a bunch of mistakes in your work either.
The point is, communicate like you normally would.
How do you speak? (Not Manglish, please. I do lapse into Manglish with friends but I rarely, if ever, use Manglish in the written form.)
So that’s my problem with most people who say they’re the bee’s knees and the cat’s whiskers when it comes to writing and speaking (and communicating).
Nic jokes that he can’t get over the fact that the Toastmasters take themselves so seriously with all the hand-shaking and formality (and counting “uhms” and “ahs”).
I even bought a book written by a Toastmaster years ago, hoping that I’d join this club one fine day until I actually attended a meeting and felt, whoa, these people are simply a bit TOO serious for words. I donated that book to a jumble sale because reading it made my skin crawl. It read too much like the kind of club I didn’t want to join!
I’m all for people learning how to write and communicate properly especially with the way English is butchered left, right and centre these days. I am all for that, believe me.
But what I find supremely annoying is the pretentiousness of some English speakers/teachers/trainers.
Learning English is NOT the end goal.
The language (be it English or not)  is a means for people to convey a message to other people.
If your English language abilities cannot get you a job, a chance at an interview, or help you persuade others (whether you’re doing sales or marketing or doing a charity fundraiser), what good then is your English?
If you cannot write clearly and no one understands what you’re trying to say, what good is your letter or email then?
Writing clearly rests on a good grasp of the language – of course you need a good foundation in any language.
But aside that, I wish teachers/trainers would teach about clarity and stop fussing about the formal must-haves (this is not SPM English where you’d be penalised for not sticking to a preferred format) and all those niceties that don’t help the message at all.
Sometimes after reading an email or letter, I’d be as confused. Now what exactly did the writer want or need?
Did I mention that my dad was an English language teacher? Yes, I am a product of the 1980s schooling where you can’t start a sentence with “But” or “And”. (It’s a downright travesty!)
Then again, my English language teachers also said I should write properly in English. The kind that scores me high marks in essays. The kind that the English 1119 examiners love. (Oh does anyone even know what English 1119 is? Ah, I am “dating” myself here.)
My work these days deals with writing – a lot of writing.
I write for clients’ websites.
Fellow writer and too-famous-for-words columnist, Alex, told me that my writing oozes me.
It speaks of empathy. I believe so. I believe I can get into the minds of my client’s customers and write about things that matter to them.
Is it about my ability to write well in the English language?
Yes. But that is simply beside the point.
The point is, when you read what I write, are you emotionally involved?
Does my writing make you laugh or think or feel like I am across the table from you, talking to you and reaching out for your hand?
Essentially I write stuff that’s very different from what I used to write in school.
That’s what I am trying to say – you may have a degree in English or you may train or teach  but until you can write clearly and people understand you without thinking “boy, what a pretentious fart”, all those degrees don’t mean much.
Take your language chops seriously when you’re studying them but use them to communicate when you’re done.
*This post was inspired by an email which came out of the blue from someone who says she can teach English and would I want her to teach people in my company? I started thinking, is teaching English the goal? Or is there something that people want to achieve with a good command of the language? Reading emails make me think and when I think I want to write down my answers. I have read too many stilted emails and letters, the kind that harks back to 1980s where a good deal of formality abound. It was good and fine then but we’re in 2013 now. Some things have to change.

4 thoughts on “Language Chops”

  1. Both flattered (to see my name) and tickled (by your indignation – do you know you manage to sound cute and smart when you’re mad :)) I had the same kind of reaction when a potential copywriting client told me to look at her website. I was aghast at how dated the writing was. It could be a stylistic preference, which is fine with me. What was troubling – I couldn’t even tell what the core business was after wading through all the verbiage. It was THAT bad! Which brings me to your point about clarity – I wonder too if it’s sufficiently emphasized in the teaching of language in school. Also, I believe there should be a clear distinction drawn between literary writing and writing for day-to-day communication.

    • Hi Alex: Cute and smart? Now that’s new to me. I thought cute was for people below 25! I am doggone too old for being cute but I think there are some myths to be debunked especially when it’s about writing or more precisely copywriting. The kind of rubbishy stuff that is on most marketing materials (websites, brochures, flyers, advertisements etc.) makes me roll my eyes and other roll-able bits haha. I do get indignant a lot (hence the white hairs that my hair stylist tries to dye to death!). Having a lot of words which don’t mean a thing makes my skin curl in horror. Also, the general public thinks that a copywriter is one who makes the words beautiful or as in one case where someone said, “make it sound more corporate”. Shall we start a Clarity Copywriting Club? The CCC mission? Make each word clear and precise or face the horror of being smacked by Alex and Krista LOL. Man, am I mad on a Thursday!

  2. Cute and smart fits you to a T all right! I’ll LOLing away at your response to my comment even as I type. Especially this line “Having a lot of words which don’t mean a thing makes my skin curl in horror.” LOL! Oh dear.


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