Cogent Communicator: What is “Good” English?

Cogent Communicator: What is “Good” English?

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English is a complicated, inconsistent language, and often a pain for both native and non-native speakers. Peculiar spelling, strange pronunciation, irregular verbs, auxiliary verbs, causal verbs, words that look the same but sound totally different – yipes! Who invented this mess? And this mess leaves a lot of people asking: What is “good” English?

Once upon a time, there were those who equated proper grammar and usage standards with social and moral superiority, as if bad English were an indication of bad character. “Good” English reflected class and education; “bad” English, the opposite. Thank goodness the world has changed, and those snooty vanguards of grammar seem irrelevant now.

But are grammar, pronunciation and spelling useless formalities left over from an era when people didn’t have anything better to think about? Can we let things like that slide now?

Since I’m a writer – and your caped crusader on behalf of technical communication – you won’t be surprised if my answer is no, we can’t just ignore them. Grammar, word choice, punctuation, even spelling, all help clarify meaning. Knowing what to say and how to say it may be more important than ever in our global economy with its very mobile workforce. English is now the language of commerce, science, technology, and diplomacy. It’s spoken and written by more than a billion people, second only to Mandarin Chinese in terms of numbers of speakers in the world. For that reason, standards matter. They improve the quality of communication.

But language is fluid, always changing, and rules change with it. For example, some of what’s acceptable now, even to the stuffiest grammarian, wasn’t acceptable a decade ago. Twenty years ago, “impact” was a noun, never a verb. Today, however, “to impact” is gaining acceptance by usage panels (the standards bearers of English).

The regulation changes will impact the design of the interface.

Twenty years ago that sentence was bad English. Today, it’s fine.

The meanings of words change, too. In Shakespeare’s time, for example, the word “nervous” meant brave, as in “full of nerve.” Go back to the 14th century and you find words you won’t recognize, such as “corages” (heart), “couth” (known), and “everichon” (everyone). Imagine finding yourself England in 1350 asking for directions to the nearest pub. Their English was so unlike ours that you’d probably never get a pint of ale.

But just because language changes doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. Standards, rules and acceptable norms control clarity, meaning, even nuance.

What Speakers Get Away With

Spoken language has been around for 80,000 years, linguists tell us. Writing has been around only a few thousand years. The latter comes with lots of rules and the former gets away without nearly as many because spoken language is immediate and disposable. We say it, we hear it, and we forget.

Written English, on the other hand, is committed to a form that lives on. It can be read and re-read, which makes it more or less immortal. It’s subject to more scrutiny and criticism.

So, for both the more formal and lasting written English, and the more ephemeral spoken English, here’s what’s “good” in my opinion, the priorities to correct common pitfalls without having to wade through an enormous standards manual.

“Good” Writing

  1. Good writing never jumps around in time. Past tense stays in the past tense, unlike this example:

The system went down at 1:00 a.m. and comes up at 4:00 a.m.

Unless the writer is reporting on the past and the present in a single sentence:

The vendor delivered on time and is demanding payment now.

  1. Good writing remembers that English sentences have subjects and verbs. At the essence of every complete sentence is that very structure: subject verb. Vendors deliver. Testers test. Managers worry. Pigs fly. Every sentence has one of each or it’s not a sentence. That’s good English. Sentences without either a subject or a verb are fragments. They look like this:

Showing no measurable improvement.

Equipment waiting to be unloaded by the interns who haven’t arrived yet.

An answer not yet received to the inquiry.

By the way, you can’t tuck your subject and verb in an introductory phrase and call it a complete sentence. The subject and verb have to be in the main body of the sentence, not like this.

When the prototype failed, designers’ confusion about where it went wrong.  (Bad)

Good:  When the prototype failed, the boss laughed and said “I told you so.”

That’s a complete sentence.

  1. Misspellings are not good English. There’s no excuse for most spelling errors because spellcheck will often catch them for you. When you see that little red squiggly line under a word, don’t ignore it.

Of course, spellcheck can’t catch everything.

The release is not ready to be migrated to UAT.

My husband wrote that sentence in an email and couldn’t figure out why, the next morning, the release had not been migrated to the test environment. That’s because he meant: The release is now ready to be migrated.

“Good” Speaking – for Native Speakers

I recently read ten tips for business travelers on airplanes. One veteran traveler said never to dress down for the flight. He had done so on a flight that lost his luggage and arrived late, forcing him to wear his flip flops and sweatpants to a meeting with a disgruntled client.

Sloppy English is like that. Some people don’t mind flip flops and sweats, but many people do, so here are a few sloppy things I hear from native speakers that could easily be improved:

  1. “Me and Ekan are working on that.” Or “Me and the team ….” Always put the other people first in your sentence. It’s just a nice thing to do. And it’s “I,” not “me.” You can tell because, if you take Ekan out of the sentence, you’re left with “Me is working on that,” and no native speaker would say that.
  2. “Irregardless” and “nother” aren’t words. Yes, language is always changing, but it hasn’t changed that much. Not yet. “A whole nother problem” is bad English, and so is “We’ll try to meet the ridiculously aggressive deadline irregardless of how much you add to project scope.”

(That reminds me: there’s no such word as “supposably,” either. It’s “supposedly.”)

  1. Things you can count (projects, employees, engines) are treated differently in English from things you can’t count (gas, satisfaction, power). You have a number of employees and an amount of gas. Saying “We have a large amount of employees” is bad English.

Similarly, “few” goes with countable items and “less” is used with uncountable. “We have less employees than our competitor” is also bad English. Good English: “We have fewer employees. But our employees have less gas.”

  1. There’s no such thing as “could of,” “would of,” or “should of.”

I could of figured it out if you had given me another month is bad English.

“Could have,” “would have,” and “should have” are good English.

I would have been happy to be company president for a day is good English.

Native English speakers are happy that English has emerged as the language of commerce and important international communication. That means, however, that there are many more non-native speakers conducting business and research and so forth in English, so it’s incumbent upon native speakers to enunciate, slow down, and make sure non-native speakers understand. Poor enunciation isn’t bad English, per se. It’s just not very nice.

For Non-Native Speakers

When new clients come to me for help with their English, they tell me that, although they’ve been learning English for years, they’re frustrated because they know they make mistakes, yet no one will tell them what needs fixing. The listener, probably too polite to say anything, gets the basic message, and everyone moves on.

Here are three improvements non-native speakers, even those who’ve studied for years, can make. Conquer these, and your credibility as an English speaker will improve. I guarantee it.

  1. Don’t drop the “s” at the end of plurals or third-person conjugations. If you say, “We are evaluating three product,” I know what you mean, but it’s wrong. No one will tell you it’s wrong (they’re too polite), but it’s wrong. “We are evaluating three products.” The difference may seem miniscule to you, but to a native speaker’s ear, it’s significant. The same goes for conjugations. “That’s what the manual say to do” is wrong. “That’s what the manual says to do.”
  2. A singular item that is countable (product, vendor, manager, HR rep, elevator, parking space, etc.) must have “a,” “an,” or “the” in front of it – always. If you say, “I call HR rep now,” or “I’m waiting for elevator,” I know what you mean, but it’s wrong, and again it seems small, but it’s significant. “I’m calling the HR rep” and “waiting for an elevator.”
  3. Prepositions, such as “in,” “at,” “on,” “to,” and “from,” go a long way towards shaping a sentence. Think of a sentence as a like a drawing. Prepositions turn a stick figure into a three-dimensional image. If you say, “I stay in home tonight,” I know what you mean, but it sounds primitive, like a stick figure.  There are dozens of prepositions to master, but if you conquer those five (“in,” “at,” “on,” “to,” and “from”), you’ll be in great shape. (If you need a preposition study guide, email me and I’ll send you the preposition summary table I use with my clients.)

English standards are not unlike engineering standards in that they’re both intended to ensure quality. Engineering standards help ensure important things like safety and performance. English standards are there to clarify, prevent ambiguity and avoid confusion. Just as engineering has standards overseers, English does, too (usage panels). And just as engineering has standards manuals, English does, too. They’re called style guides.

Unless you’re writing for publication, the particulars of style guides go far beyond what you need for most business communication. But it’s good to know they’re out there if you need them. In the meantime, if you turn up your attention to improved English in these few ways, you’ll command greater respect as a speaker and as a writer.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Her new novel, Speaking English with My Father, is available now.

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