Mind Your Language
In my day job I come across all kinds of typos, verbal gaffes and bloopers. They can be as basic as the inappropriate use of ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, ‘seized’ and ‘ceased,’ ‘our’ and ‘are’, and ‘bare’ when a writer really means ‘bear’, with some amusing results. My all time personal favourite was a ‘character’ called ‘Rick O Shade’, until I realised that it related to ‘ricocheted’ as in a bullet rebounding. Then there’s the verbal tic where a single word is repeated again and again. Some examples: ‘just’, ‘so’ and ‘completely’. ‘Well,’ before every piece of a dialogue is a hot favourite, and before you think I’m ‘just’ a little too smug, I’ve made my fair share of all of the above errors (bar Rick O Shade) when I’ve written at speed and forgotten to mind my language. Fortunately, I pick all this stuff up when self-editing. Usually. And that’s the point – blushes spared, it can be corrected before it sees the light of day.
Not so the spoken word.
Certain phrases have entered our vocabulary and are repeated to such a degree it renders them valueless. The banal ‘Going forwards’ drives me crazy. So what’s the big deal, you may think. But, actually, we get flaky with language at our peril.
When something truly terrible happens stunned silence is sometimes all that is left to describe it. When we do manage to put words to thought it’s important to get it right. How often have you heard the phrase ‘Mistakes have been made and lessons have been learnt…?’ This is trotted out whenever a head of a social services department makes a statement in the wake of a child’s death, or a spokesman for a hospital following, as in the case of Stafford, the deaths of up to 1,200 patients. Senior police officers and politicians are also prone to use it. Fine the first time you hear it, but when those bland statements are made again and again we are entitled to question the truth and conviction behind the sentiment. It risks sounding like a whitewash.
And what’s with the ‘incident’? This is used so extensively it’s virtually meaningless. Used to describe a prang in a car, it can also refer to a major crime like ‘murder’. Some may argue that the use of the word ‘incident’ takes the heat and passion out of the act, that a cool head is required in such circumstances, yet why not call it what it is: ‘a murder’? If one of my loved ones, God forbid, became a victim, I’m not sure I’d be too chuffed to hear it reported as an ‘incident.’ Check out the word in a dictionary and you’ll see what I mean.
So what I’m asking for is a little more precision, and a great deal more sensitivity although I’m not averse to passion and plain speaking. Talking about opposition to HS2 recently, Boris Johnson was quoted as saying: ‘It’s bollocks’. David Laws nearly made me fall off my chair when I heard him say on air that the idea of the Department of Education opposing free school meals was ‘utter balls’. You don’t have to agree or disagree to know exactly where they stand on both subjects. What was that I was saying about mind your language?!