Why bad English is bad for business – and a sub’s disillusionment

A recent report suggested that businesses were damaging their trade by using bad English on their websites.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Communicate badly and you alienate your audience, who either don’t understand you or think you are patronising them and being disrespectful of their intelligence.

It’s high time site owners started paying attention to getting their content right. What’s the point of investing in all-singing, all-dancing, user-friendly, easily-navigable sites if you’re going to fill them with rubbish text that a 10-year-old could have produced?

Everyone’s obsessed with their text being “search engine optimised” – which, from what I can gather, means using the same tired old phrases over and over again – no-one seems to worry whether their text is good or not.

In the newspaper and magazine world, it’s a standing joke that the ad sales people refer to editorial as “the stuff that fills the pages between the ads”. They argue that it’s the ads that make the money, so why waste money on the non-profit-making editorial pages? It’s a logic of sorts, if you ignore the fact that what really sells a publication – what makes it attractive to readers and hence advertisers – is well-written, informative and compelling editorial.

Bad English, as used by those who should know better, is bad for journalists – because we’ll all be out of a job – but it’s also bad for business, because it damages the impact and effectiveness of communications. More importantly it’s bad for society, because it lessens the precision of messages and our ability to convey shades of meaning.

I had to admire the well-timed opportunism of a journalist contact of mine who seized on the recent report as a chance to promote her website re-writing service at £100 a pop. I hope she will capitalise on any sense of shame the report has created among the more self-aware of businesses.

Regrettably, a dismissive attitude towards good English is not unique to websites but is becoming endemic among newspapers, which used to be staunch upholders of the language. Say what you like about the politics of the tabloids, but in the past you had to look long and hard for a typo, because there were so many pairs of eyes overseeing and checking every single story.

Now, newspaper group owners believe that sort of nonsense is far too expensive. Subbing teams are being dismantled and reporters, even junior ones, are expected to fill their own pages, which then go straight to print without anyone checking the content or questioning its quality.

The result? Major errors in spelling, grammar, usage and accuracy. I’ll be delighted when one of these cost-cutting tightwads gets the court case for defamation or copyright infringement that they deserve.

I quote from a friend who’s seeing the standards of her own daily paper plummet as the f***wit owners piss on the subbing department from on high.

“I am feeling very disenchanted about the whole subbing business. The latest round of redundancies at our place targeted only production staff – there seems to be no recognition among management that we do a worthwhile job. It is all about reporters writing into boxes – any monkey could do it and probably will. Today was the first day of a horrible new shift pattern, only for subs. I’m starting at 3pm and finish after my last train home [and the firm won’t pay for a taxi].
“Subbing used to be a skilled job. But new technology meant any idiot could cast off, and when work pressures are such that any sloppy old thing will do (woefully short headlines and captions, typos, orphans – you name it, we do it) it’s not the same at all. Not fun, not enjoyable, not secure employment.”

Perhaps we should all stop trying to use our lovely language properly, and just communicate in Neanderthal grunts?

Pic credit: Renjith Krishnan, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=721

2 thoughts on “Why bad English is bad for business – and a sub’s disillusionment

  1. Nick Wright says:

    I liked your tirade on poor writing standards on websites.

    Perhaps you’d like to review StyleWriter 4 – a sub-editing program that encourages plain Engish and good English usage. Have a look at the demos at http://www.editorsoftware.com and download the trial and run it on some text from websites. You’ll soon see the power of the program.

    You can also see a review of StyleWriter 4 from the Institute of Technical Communicators at:

    The free trial is at: http://www.editorsoftware.com


    1. Sue Fenton says:

      thanks Nick, looks interesting. Could make a fun blog post in itself if it tells me my own writing exceeds the “bog” limits! But when I downloaded it and saved to the desktop and pressed “run” it said there was an initialisation error – any ideas?

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