I watched Star Trek the other day. My dad was engrossed. It was the one that starts with Kirk, Spock and McCoy out camping on earth: ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’. Starfleet orders Kirk and crew to travel to a planet to rescue hostages. Their captors are led by a Vulcan named Sybok, who we learn is Spock’s half-brother. The hostage scenario turns out to be a ruse to get the starship Enterprise into that part of the galaxy, and then to force the crew to travel on to a nearby planet where they find a god-like being, Sybok’s alter ego, who wants to use the Enterprise. I won’t spoil the ending.
It took me a while to get into because I hadn’t watched Star Trek for years, yet I found it as entertaining as ever. I became fixated on Spock’s use of language, not least because he had some catchy lines. They grated and appealed at the same time. For all its quirks, his language had human qualities, which should come as no surprise. Once I reminded myself that he’s half-human and half-Vulcan, even his mechanical-sounding lines became bearable.
When Spock explains that he can’t describe the taste of beans cooked over a campfire, he ends a sentence with a preposition: ‘Mmmm. Surprisingly good. However, it contains a flavouring I am not familiar with.’ It sounds natural, which it is.
He could have said ‘… with which I am not familiar’. But why should he? It sounds pompous.
He also shows he knows the power of a short sentence: ‘Thrusters are inoperative.’
Yes, I’m sure the Plain English Campaign would prefer something like ‘The thrusters do not work’ or even the plainness of ‘The small rocket engines that we need for takeoff do not seem to be working.’ But under the circumstances – in a spaceship and under attack – ‘thrusters’ and ‘inoperative’ worked fine. Everyone got the message. Dad and I got it too.
Looking at the scripts of other Star Treks, I found these one-liners: ‘Fascinating’, ‘Highly illogical’ and of course ‘Live long and prosper.’
Not a wasted word.
I noticed that Spock minds his grammar, as you can tell from this exchange from Star Trek New Voyages: World Enough and Time.
Mr Spock: We are each of us unique.
Alana Sulu: But you must admit some of us are a lot more unique than others.
Mr Spock: It is grammatically incorrect to place a modifier before ‘unique’. But nonetheless, you are correct. Some of us are.
He’s right. And then there’s this from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which Spock shows he knows when to use the subjunctive mood: ‘If I were human, I believe my response would be: “go to hell”. If I were human.’
Star Trek has also given us the ‘to boldly go’ phrase, from Captain Kirk’s monologue at the start of each film and series.
Space … the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
The phrase lends itself to the split infinitive debate. In English, the infinitive is the pure form of a verb, the one you find in a dictionary, and is sometimes called the bare infinitive because it’s the most basic form of the verb.
Another school of thought says the infinitive is the bare form with to in front of it – like to go. It ties in with a rule that you shouldn’t put an adverb, say boldly, between to and the verb, as in ‘to boldly go’. Relying on this made-up logic leads to the split infinitive debate. I’m all for splitting it because it sounds more natural.
To get back to Spock for a moment, guess why his English was passable? Vulcans rely on logic because they suppress their emotions, and although writing can be (and should be) emotive, putting the words in the right order relies on logic. When you think about it, for us earthlings this should be straightforward – after all, we created and evolved the language.
But if that’s true, why on earth do so many businesses write like they’re from another planet? Read the annual reports and corporate websites of some FTSE 100 companies (okay, just dip into them) and you’ll see what I mean. Take this example from the planet Barclays:
We are making good headway across the financial commitments we set out as part of our Transform plan as well as on de-leveraging to meet the PRA’s revised target.
In other words, ‘We have met eight of the 12* promises in our Transform plan. And we are on track to meet the Prudential Regulation Authority’s revised target to cut our ratio of debt to equity.’
(*I’ve made up the numbers. For Barclays to say ‘We are making good headway …’, they must have measured progress against targets. So it must be possible to put a figure on it – say, two-thirds or whatever.)
Again, the Plain English Campaign might prefer to dumb down ‘debt’ and ‘equity’, but I’m sure Barclays annual report readers know what these mean. I’m all for clear, not for plain. Then there’s this from the same report:
To address the cost challenge, we have focused on creating the right level of financial analytics and on improving operational efficiencies. The key elements of our cost programme are right-sizing our businesses, industrialising handling of customer transactions and queries, and adopting innovative technology and automated processing.
Woolly, abstract words – cost challenge, financial analytics, cost programme, right-sizing, industrialising, innovative – hint that Barclays have something to hide. It’s corporatespeak for ‘We have looked at where we can save money. And to do this we have to cut the number of people we employ, handle customer queries and transactions abroad and automate processes.’ There, I’ve said it.
But what’s more interesting than my rehash of Barclays’ words is the question of why so many businesses write like this. Language reflects identity. The language you and I use reflects our regional and social identities. As well as to communicate, we use it to identify with people who share common values, interests and experiences. And people we talk to sometimes use it to pigeonhole us. Which is why we might change the way we speak depending on our circumstances and who we’re with – say, out socialising with close friends or wanting to impress in an interview. Businesses – groups of people – do the same.
Last year 29.9 per cent of Barclays’ income came from personal and small business banking. The biggest wad, 49.6 per cent, came from investment and corporate banking, which is why Barclays aims its tone of voice squarely at corporates. Most other big business do the same. But for businesses that don’t (they tend to be smaller) and use language well – First Direct, Howies, Sofa.com, BrewDog, to name a few – it becomes a point of difference. By ‘well’ I mean you can almost hear the brand talking to you, and it sounds natural. You get a sense of personality and you sense this most of the time. One way to achieve this is to write like you speak.
You may argue that this can sound too matey and not businesslike enough. But it doesn’t have to. Write like you speak really means write more like you would speak if you could speak to the person you’re writing to. Use the language you’d use if you were face-to-face, which I doubt would be Barclays style.