What’s the right tone to strike in workplace writing?
Formal? Yes, you want to come across as a serious contributor to the subject at hand and not to sound too … Chatty? Hmmm. But if you’re too serious, don’t you risk boring people and losing them?
Tone is a minefield. And it’s made all the more treacherous by social media. Now, even the weightiest of subjects — market-shaking IPOs, Barack Obama’s first election win, the discovery of water on Mars — are announced via the same medium, Twitter, that also broadcasts what thousands of people had for breakfast.
Moreover, the ruling tone on the ever-more pervasive LinkedIn is breezy, informal and — yes — chatty. To buttoned-up Brits in particular, it can seem more suited to a coffee shop than to the office.
Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, memos will be sent back by a line manager with the criticism: ‘Too formal!’ However, at least for now, formality is still the norm in business communication.
Genteel does it
The trouble, however, is that using formal language (or what people think is formal language) is not the same as getting it right — and this is nowhere better revealed than in the dreaded use of genteelisms.
A genteelism is the substitution of a word or phrase that the speaker thinks is more correct for one that they imagine to be inappropriately colloquial or vulgar.
Examples would be swapping ‘at this juncture’ for ‘now’, ‘transpire’ for ‘happen’, ‘missive’ for ‘letter’ or ‘consume’ for ‘eat’.
Genteelisms are related to euphemisms (mild words that replace ones thought too direct) and often jar when used in the wrong context.
Some of the great grammarians of English have proclaimed the use of genteelisms to be a defining curse of social climbers.
HW Fowler (who wrote Modern English Usage in 1926) coined the term, defining a genteelism as ‘the substituting, for the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd’.
His examples included ‘lounge’ for ‘sitting room’, ‘odour’ for ‘smell’ and ‘perspire’ for ‘sweat’.
Lexicographer Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, his 1942 classic on English style, also condemned ‘those words and phrases which the semi-literate and far too many of the literate believe to be more elegant than the terms they displace’.
More recently, Simon Heffer, the former Telegraph journalist, diagnosed ‘a phase’ through which ‘the aspiring, undereducated person passes … in which he feels it is right to imitate the language of bureaucrats’.
Indeed, a good synonym for ‘genteelism’ in the business writing context is ‘bureaucratese’. And probably no one wants to sound like a bureaucrat when they write — not even a bureaucrat.
Not only pompous but wrong
The irony and tragedy of genteelisms is that they reveal a person’s ignorance in the very moment that they try to conceal it — and never more so than when the genteelism is not only pompous but grammatically wrong.
Such ‘false genteelisms’ are legion in business writing when, for example, the writer invites the reader: ‘please don’t hesitate to contact my colleagues and I’.
No doubt they think that sounds more like something the Queen would say (if she had colleagues), rather than the hideously street ‘me and my colleagues’. Yet the latter is grammatically correct, just as it would be if you took the colleagues out of the equation — ‘please don’t hesitate to contact me’, rather than ‘please don’t hesitate to contact I’. (Unless, of course, you speak Iyaric, the Rastafarian dialect.)
Similarly, you may hear people refer to ‘my manager, my team members and myself’, which sounds rather like a police report. Indeed, this may be the kind of language the speaker is unconsciously imitating — imagining it to be the paragon of official correctness.
However, ‘my manager, my team members and me’ is the correct way to phrase it. (‘Myself’ is used in reflexive expressions such as, ‘I picked myself up,’ when the subject and object of the verb are the same.)
How to avoid these embarrassing errors?
As always with writing, especially in business writing, err on the side of simplicity.
To put it another way, if it sounds suspiciously simple, it may well be right. And if it sounds suspiciously superior, it is quite possibly wrong.
If you find yourself pondering which is correct, instead of trying to guess the difference, take a moment to look it up. Or drop us an email or give us a call, and we’ll help.
A version of this post was originally published on the Emphasis writing skills website.