A festive treat today in the form of a guest blog from my friend and colleague Guy Doza. Guy is an experienced speechwriter and consultant with a Master’s degree in rhetoric from Royal Holloway’s Centre of Oratory and Rhetoric. His research focusses on the application of classical rhetoric in the modern day. Guy’s post today is about the controversial subject of grammar and “correct” language in speeches and communication.
In his own words:
“As a non-partisan writer I have worked with officials from the Conservative, Labour, SNP, LibDem and Green parties. Outside of Parliament, I have worked with a number of Charities and NGOs ranging from BP to the BBC.
I often write for scientists and research groups who want to communicate their work to a mass audience. In the past I have written about chemistry, economics, astrophysics and more. On one occasion I was even asked to write a speech for a hamster.”
He blogs about rhetoric over at The Cambridge Speechwriter, recent highlights include “Logic Part 1: Fun, fallacies and a dead flamingo” and “Game of Rhetoric: A rhetorical commentary on Cersei Lannister’s speech”. Guy loves talking about (and arguing about) rhetoric and language on Twitter, so go over and say hi!
The Eloquent Pedants
Yes, some of you might consider it wrong for me to start an article as I would a speech. Some of you might consider it unprofessional or sloppy. However, in the real world, language that is considered to be academically ‘correct’ is less common, less relatable and therefore less effective than ‘real language’.
When I’m talking about ‘real language’ I’m referring to colloquial language – the sort of language we use when we talk to people, rather than the language we use when writing. Colloquial language, if used correctly, speaks to a wider audience and with greater impact. It is easier to understand and, in many cases, does a better job of conveying complex messages. Yes, that’s right, it does a better job of conveying complex messages!
‘How can this be?’, I hear you thinking to yourselves. Many speechwriters acknowledge that when writing an effective speech, you need to be a master of simplification and an enemy of simplicity. Grand ideas are often lost in a labyrinth of grandiloquence. We need to simplify our language without losing the meaning or impact of our content. And after all, why do we say anything? It shouldn’t be to bamboozle or discombobulate an audience but rather to get them to engage with our ideas.
I was once told that big ideas don’t need big words. The more I thought about it the more I realised that they really don’t! This idea reminded me of the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman was famous for being able to communicate complex concepts in ways that could be understood by school children. He was an expert, he knew the lingo, but he also knew how to explain the relevant bits in a relatable way. We should all aim to communicate like Richard Feynman.
So why do people feel the need to use big words and hypercorrect grammar? Why is it so wrong to split our infinitives? Just a quick point here, split infinitives are often looked down on because they can cause confusion in Latin, even though in English they are often of little or no consequence! I believe that in most cases it is because we feel a need to prove ourselves. We want to appear intelligent, so we try to sound what we think ‘intelligent’ sounds like and use language that normal people don’t. We risk alienating people, whether it’s an audience or a reader.
In reality, no one cares about how correct your grammar is. If people can understand what you are trying to say, the correctness of the language you use to say it shouldn’t matter. Despite this, there are those pedants out there who, for the sake of outdated and irrelevant traditions, insist that we write and speak in certain ways.
As you have probably gathered, I would disagree. When the Dalia Lama speaks in English he speaks clumsily, his grammar is all over the place and he even uses some words incorrectly. Despite his lack of linguistic proficiency there is never any confusion when he speaks. Despite his lack of ‘correctness’ his powerful and profound arguments are clear. His words are much more powerful than those of the eloquent pedants in this world. This suggests that our use of ’correct’ language is inferior to the substance of our message. We live in a world where the substance and delivery of the message outrank the accuracy of our grammar.
Thankfully, it seems as if the old way of haughty communication is slowly diminishing, and with its demise rises a new era in which real language is king. And this real language is breaking conventions of ‘proper’ language. Don’t believe me? Just look at Trump…