When did you last consider your language choices?

By 21st February 2017Word Savvy
  1. Extreme Exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms.
  2. Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES

We have a choice in the language we use in business, but sometimes our efforts to be convincing and credible can end up verbose and confusing. Harvard Psychology Professor, Stephen Pinker uses these example from two warning notices on portable generators to explain this curse of knowledge and how it can affect communication.

The first warning is correct, but rather more difficult to understand than the second. It relies on the reader understanding the abbreviation of carbon monoxide and it includes a zombie noun, ‘Extreme Exposure’. A zombie noun is the unnecessary creation of a noun which hides the agent of the action. Sometimes they can be useful, but often, as in this example, they sound abstract. It’s a choice.

The second example outlines an actual event, without getting into the niceties of how and why. It’s more direct, doesn’t try to explain something complex and is easier to understand. We can see the same thing in the label posted on twitter by @Thomas_Newton, along with an even more explicit/macabre image.

It’s a stark example, but we think a lot of business writing could benefit from understanding how the curse of knowledge can affect writing and how to use the direct, conversational tone of example 2. So we’ve turned our love of writing and speaking into Word Savvy. We want to help business people think about the words they use in the office, in writing and online; to think about their language choices.

There is a strong ethos of continuous learning in business, especially in the tech sector. We gather accreditations, learn new technologies, attend sales training, but when did you last learn something new about writing? Maybe someone picked you up on an arbitrary grammar point, or directed you to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language? Not that Orwell is without his critics, as author Stephen Poole, outlines in the Guardian.

So thinking about your language choices within a business context shouldn’t just about spellcheck and grammar questions. We believe thoughtful use of language can build better contacts, achieve industry recognition, boost internal interactions and improve interest from prospects.

But what do you think? Is it time for business people, from graduate trainees to the board, to step up from grammar quibbles and refresh their use of words? Is it time we all took a moment to re-consider our language choices?


Steven Pinker’s example about warning notices comes from page 54 of his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. http://stevenpinker.com/publications/sense-style-thinking-persons-guide-writing-21st-century

Thomas Newton on the subject of this image


Steven Poole on Orwell http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/17/my-problem-with-george-orwell