• “John threw Mary under the bus.”
• “At the end of the day…”
• “You’re pulling my chain.”
• “I couldn’t care less.”
• “You’re messing with my mind.”
• “This isn’t my first rodeo.”
• “I’m mixed up.”
We could go on. Do these phrases seem familiar? Have you heard them lots of times? Now, pretend you are not a native English speaker, and from that point of view, how much sense do these common English-language phrases make?
“Slang,” my Merriam-Webster’s tells me means, “(1) language peculiar to a particular group”; and “(2) an informal nonstandard vocabulary….” Slang can be a lot of fun! Slang can make sense in a colorful way. Frequently it makes your point more effectively – except for the reader who is translating your words or phrases literally!
Slang can be regional phrases that make a lot of sense to someone who has heard these phrases over and over throughout his or her whole life. Yet for the reader who takes your words literally, they very well could have a totally different meaning from what was intended.
Did John really throw Mary under a bus? Were the police called? Is John in jail? Why did John throw Mary under the bus?
What’s a rodeo? Do you go to very many? How many?
And, are you really “mixed up”? What are you mixed up with? I’ve heard of people looking like they combed their hair with an eggbeater, but what were you mixed up by?
Well, you get the point. In the last example, if we want to use the phrase “mixed up,” we would have to add something like, “and I find it difficult to understand…” to help the reader understand what we’re talking about – thereby adding several more words. For brevity’s sake, as well as for clarity, why not just say, “I’m confused”?
Challenge yourself with a quick mind-expanding exercise you can do right now.
Go up to the list of slang words and phrases, and time yourself: How quickly can you think of a short, business-acceptable substitute for each of the phrases shown?
Notice, as you are working out the substitutions, it will be almost automatic to substitute a similar sort 0f phrase, e.g., “When all is said and done,” for “At the end of the day….”
The purpose of this quick exercise is (1) to recognize some of the common slang we all use that could cause serious communication issues for those who do not “speak the language” – whether they are native English speakers or not; and (2) to help you think quickly of words or phrases you can use to “translate” the thoughts these phrases express into appropriate words for the business situation – whether in writing, or in speaking.
Now, listen to the words and phrases used all around you every day. Identity the “slang” you hear. Clearly, when “they” said, “Write the way you speak,” this was not what “they” had in mind – at least not for the literal-minded reader.
Finally, how do you write to the “home office” when you work for a foreign-owned company? This question comes up frequently in class. The answer? Follow your office guidelines. In my experience, most foreign-owned organizations expect correct American English correspondence from their American offices. If not, they will tell you.
Let Gail Tycer show you how to write less, say more – and get results! Bring a Gail Tycer business writing workshop to your organization, or recommend Gail for your next meeting. Executive coaching, consulting, and writing and editing services are also available. To see how we might work together, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email firstname.lastname@example.org