Bankers: ditch the slang and embrace proper English

Posted on 12 September 2014 by attica_writing

Professional languages are like strong regional dialects: to the fellow speaker, regular conversation unfolds smoothly; to a non-native, it’s unintelligible.

Anyone who has worked in a profession for a significant time has most likely spent years developing fluency in its niche tongue. We speak it over the phone, read it in the trade press and almost certainly write it ourselves in emails. My professional dialect is that of finance, as I’ve worked in a global investment bank for eight years.

While there are immensely gifted minds in my industry, the language of finance has rendered many people incapable of writing sensibly.

The financial world is so obsessed with adopting exclusive terminology (often three-letter acronyms) that the concept of sentence construction has all but vanished. Writing is now about superficial perception rather than content and/or elegance of expression. Both of which, in my view, are crucial to business writing.

Well-written emails do not go unnoticed. I find that an argument, eloquently expressed and in focused form, carries a great deal of weight with our clients. And it’s remarked upon time and again. Yet my colleagues are so fluent in ‘financialese’ that they overlook foundation English.

This is more than a petty grammar gripe. There seems to be a total lack of effort around ‘how should I phrase this?’ We become conditioned to discard proper English, although it remains the single biggest (and easiest) differentiator. That doesn’t mean your writing should be stuffy or formal; you can (and probably should) imbue it with character and energy – you’re not writing a TV instruction manual.

The other day, a colleague wrote the following in his daily Bloomberg message:

‘You gotta ask, “What’s the downgrade to cons organic revs and why does the street even care anyway?”’

It’s a typical financial thought, but the colloquialism makes it feel sloppy. Showing due care and attention (and a hint of professionalism) can’t possibly see you come undone. In a work context, detachment lends credibility and weight. My colleague could have gone with the following:

‘We might not know how big the shortfall in forecasts will be, but it probably won’t affect the market.’

The latter version is not more informative, but it is more likely to be viewed as incisive and measured. It’s also vaguely comprehensible to those without detailed financial knowledge. The ill-formed alternative simply blends into the background noise generated by the other 95% of industry participants who type very much as they speak – in financial jargon.

This is not simply my opinion; it is time-honoured feedback from clients and bosses. So if you work in one of the professions (especially finance), perhaps you might consider rephrasing that next email. It can only be a good thing if your recipient understands what you’re saying.

About the author

Mr X, Investment Banker

Mr X has asked us not to reveal anything about him. We have it on good authority that he lives somewhere in London, likes long walks and doesn’t take his job too seriously.*
If you would like to generate some random financial jargon to impress people and seem financially savvy, you can play around here: Financial Phrase Generator

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