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Promoting plain workplace English

By Nick Easen for CNN

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A clear writing style could make a big difference in the workplace.
TOP OVERUSED PHRASES

1. At the end of the day
2. At this moment in time
3. Like (as a form of punctuation)
4. With all due respect
5. To be honest
6. Let's touch base
7. I hear what you are saying
8. Going forward
9. Absolutely
10. Blue sky (thinking)

Source: Plain English Campaign

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(CNN) -- Just half a century ago office workers toiled over carefully scripted manuscripts before sending them by post. Now e-mail allows us to zap our typed chat around the globe in seconds.

Yet the latest electronic technology has not made us better writers -- corporate culture is still full of jargon and cliches, as well as abused and overused phrases.

In the fiercely competitive global workplace, clear English skills can be vital for success. But co-workers still "talk the talk", assess the impact of "post-merger integration" and "human capital" on the "bottom line."

In a recent online CNN poll, out of 56 voters, 27 percent said that the standard of written and spoken English in their company was poor, while 53 percent said it was just reasonable.

"The workplace is probably the most important area for plain English," John Lister of the Plain English Campaign told CNN.

"It is where we spend the most time during the week, and it is the place most of our formal communication takes place," Lister said.

Phrases are picked up from co-workers and bosses in meetings, e-mails and presentations and can quickly spread around the office like a computer virus.

Although the best rationale involves applying common sense and clarity to the written word, Lister believes there is undue pressure in the workplace.

"In particular (managers) need to discourage the situation where staff feel pressured to use jargon as a status symbol," he says.

Lister believes anything that places the emphasis on displaying knowledge rather than communicating ideas and information can cause problems.

This approach could stem from higher education, where students write for an audience -- lecturers or examiners -- who already know the information and are instead looking for a demonstration of knowledge by the writer.

Management courses may also teach people to use convoluted language and overworked expressions to fit in and advance their career.

"This tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Lister.

A number of Web sites, books and software packages exist to assist employees with clear, effective business writing.

Advice on business English

The Plain English Campaign is an independent group that has up to 5,000 activists worldwide. It is against poor English language use.

The campaign celebrated its 25th anniversary last month and identified the ten worst phrases currently in use (See list at top right).

The organization has the following suggestions regarding the use of clear English in the workplace:

  • Managers need to create an environment where a clear, everyday writing style is seen as a positive.
  • The writer's responsibility is to put a message across clearly. The reader can then take responsibility for their actions in response to the information. Employers are responsible for removing any barriers to this process.
  • There are three main causes of unclear writing: forgetting the needs of the audience; writing for a reason other than communication; and not putting a point across clearly.
  • Plain English reduces the need to explain and clarify documents, or to return forms that have mistakes because the instructions are unclear.
  • The passive voice can be used to avoid taking or giving responsibility. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but writers should be aware that they are doing it.
  • When speaking at home, we are usually very familiar with the people we speak to and the situation under discussion. This means we can rely more on shared background to give language enough context, even when the words we use are potentially ambiguous or understated. This does not translate well in the office.

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