What does global English mean to you?

Posted on 14 March 2014 by Lucy Gregory

 
Last week, the Attica team went on an outing. Don’t get too excited – it was to the Royal Geographical Society for a debate on the future of the English language.

The motion was ‘Between you and I, the English language is going to the dogs’.

A panel of eminent journalists and academics pontificated for two hours on whether it’s good or bad that no one differentiates between uninterested and disinterested.

This was enthralling for language geeks (aka crotchety pedants), but is it relevant to the rest of us?

Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail, speaking for the motion, made a good point. The people at the top, those who hire and fire, still care about the ‘rules’ of English. And since our fate lies in their hands, we should care too.

Fine. But what happens when those people retire? Will the next generation be as pedantic? Will they require applicants to spell the 50 trickiest words in the English language before being offered an interview (apparently this happens at the Daily Telegraph)?

I doubt it.

The other day I came across a fantastic quote. In my mind, this should be the mantra of every business writer:
 

You have succeeded if a cooperative, motivated reader understands
your document at first reading in the way you intend it to be understood.

 

This is what we care about at Attica: making yourself understood quickly and easily. The ‘rules’ of English come a resolute second.

Heffer made another interesting point that somewhat contradicts the earlier one I mentioned. It seems you have a better chance of getting a job in England today if English is your second language rather than your first. Leaving the political aspect of this statement to one side, I think it reveals something interesting about business English.

Most people with English as a second language aren’t word perfect. I’ve worked with extremely competent professionals in business and academia who do not write or speak in flawless English. (Does anyone?) Yet these individuals make themselves clearly understood and they are bounding up the career ladder on a par with their native-speaking colleagues. So perhaps those at the top don’t care as much as we’re led to believe. Maybe they’ve reached the top because they take a pragmatic approach to running a business and word-perfect British English is not a priority.

Every year more global organisations choose English as their official language. Do we expect everyone from Tokyo to Timbuktu to speak the Queen’s English?

Obviously not.

Instead, people all around the world bring their version of English to the proverbial table. There’ll come a time when forcing everyone to use British or US English just won’t be practical. But so long as we can all make ourselves understood, the business world will keep on turning.

Within a generation or two, I can see ‘English’ being an historical language. In global business, British English will be one of many English dialects, all of which have equal status. And if we in the UK want to stay competitive, we’ll need to stop treating our version as the ‘correct’ one.

Until then, it’s still worth perfecting our written English. But let’s focus on what matters: communicating our messages as clearly as we can. That’s more than enough to be getting on with!
 
 
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Speaking for the motion were John Humphrys and Simon Heffer. Speaking against the motion were Oliver Kamm and Mary Beard. As expected, they all spoke exceptionally well. The motion was marginally passed – and we’ll let you guess how we voted.
 
The debate was held by Intelligence Squared. The next writing-related event is a talk on 25 September between Steven Pinker and Ian McEwan on good writing. We’ll see you there!