Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Belshaw's world: the Twittering of English

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 28 October 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Earlier this year Clare (youngest) failed a hieroglyphics test. This led her to complain bitterly about the failure of her school to teach her basic grammar.

Then last week, NSW Premier Nathan Rees complained about the poor standard of official English in NSW. NSW public servants are to be put under a plain-English microscope to make sure the documents they produce are clear and precise.

In the middle of these two events came another compliant from one of the main industry lobby groups about the inability of new staff to write clear English.

A frequent response to these types of problems is to call for changes to the way English is taught at school. However, there is a far more fundamental problem.

Written English has simply been twittered.

For those fortunates who are still oblivious to Twitter, it is a sort of on-line SMS system with messages limited to 140 characters.

Kevin Rudd twitters. Joe Hockey twitters. Even Malcolm Turnbull’s dog has been known to twitter!

The problem is that twittering is simply the latest in a long line of new technology that has, in combination, ripped the guts out of written English.

A remarkably small number of people, NSW public servants included, actually write very much:

They live in a world of spread-sheets, of emails, of power point presentations. This is also a world in which written forms (briefing note, memo, ministerial, Cabinet minute for example) must comply with templates and rules; a world where every word is scrutinised for message.

In this world, you can tell the old fashioned because they still treat emails as a form of written English. The modern do not.

“Could you see me please” is replaced by “cd u c me pls”.

This type of truncation damages the capacity to write. However, it is the least of the problems faced by written English.

If you look at the school English curriculum, it aims to create a form of literacy in different types of media. The focus is as much on the visual as the written.

This focus accurately reflects the realities of modern organisational life.

I grew up in a world in which there were two main types of communication, oral and written. The approach to both was affected by the purpose of the communication and by the medium used.

The modern world is far more complicated.

The range of media has exploded. In a time poor world, the focus now lies in getting a simplified message across in the most time-effective way.

Of itself, this damages the capacity to write in a stand alone fashion. However, there is a more pernicious problem.

Each form of communication has to be learned, and this takes time.

When I started working, written English was central. All I had to worry about was how best to fit my writing to purpose.

Today I write across multiple media – web sites, blogs, print, even Twitter. Each requires a different style.

I also use a variety of software in preparing and presenting material. With constant changes in software, I face a constant battle in maintaining, let alone increasing, my skills.

Then, too, I have to spend time deciding just which media or combination of media best fits the purpose. Sometimes this is dictated. More often, I find myself involved in tasks that really belong to a visual designer.

Is it any wonder in these circumstances that the actual art of written English can get lost?

There is further problem. Just as people’s ability to write English has declined, so has their capacity to actually understand the written form.

We can see this most clearly in responses to the length of written documents. Acceptable length has tended to become shorter and shorter. People no longer have the time or patience to read as they once did.

This has led to a dumbing down not just of English, but indeed of the underlying thoughts themselves.

Here I compare the written internal English that I saw when I first joined the Commonwealth Treasury with today’s equivalent.

There is no place today for the sometimes long, often complex, but beautifully lucid writing that I saw come from some of the then Public Service mandarins.


Kanani said...

I was at the Blog World Expo in Las Vegas. There was a panel, and the panelists kept going on and on. At one point I thought if they'd just condense their thoughts to 144 characters, they'd have my attention!

Jim Belshaw said...

I had to laugh at this comment, Kanani. You are so right.