Speaking in Tongues: How Business English Baffles and Bamboozles

Public officers need to have a way with words, in both the spoken and written form. But do we always make sense when communicating with others for work?

It's important for public officers to understand appropriate workplace communication.

Truly, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. We wear different hats depending on the situation we are in. The same applies to how we speak and write, specifically in the workplace.

Think about the last meeting you attended or the last email you received. Some of what is said and written, thankfully, gets to the point of the matter. But sometimes it is peppered with clumsily adopted metaphors and phrases that only make sense with members of your team – if at all.

Challenge takes a look at the world of bureaucratese and business gobbledygook that can feel awkward or not make much sense when we really think about it. Some of these might be upsetting, so buckle up!

Bandwidth: In the world of electronics, this means a range of frequencies within a given band to transmit a signal. When used in relation to people, it describes one’s capacity (or lack thereof) to do things. Makes you wonder at which point you turned into a cyborg.

Boil the ocean: To undertake an impossible task or project or make something unnecessarily difficult. Although given the recent Gulf of Mexico fire, boiling the ocean might not be so far-fetched anymore.

Discussed about: This is a grammatical issue akin to “shared about”. You just discuss or share. There’s no need for “about”. For example, “Sam discussed/shared the problems related to the project” is the right form.
“Sam discussed/shared about the problems related to the project” is not.

FYI: For Your Information, sometimes used in both conversations and emails. But isn’t that what the CC and BCC in emails are for, especially if it means you do not have to take any action? However, this might also depend on your organisation’s email culture and conventions. What is yours?

Going forward: Depending on the situation and how it’s used, it can be somewhat of a casual reminder that someone has messed up, and needs to be reminded before everyone can move on.

Although emails and written letters sometimes require the use of formal language, instant messaging and chats mostly use informal language.
For instant messaging and chat, “Hey” works as a greeting and a request for your real-time attention. For emails, “Hi” or “Hello” may be acceptable as they are less formal than written letters. However, organisations that are more hierarchical may opt to use “Dear…” for emails to match more formal written letters of snail mail days of old.

Title: Email Peculiarities

Dear XXX: Some find this a tad too intimate, while others think it projects politeness and etiquette, which are essential for business emails. Elsewhere, it simply implies being of a certain age (i.e., old). To bridge this generational gap, the Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch recommends making it clear what terms of address to use, at least within one’s organisation.

Hope this email finds you well: They might mean well, but what if your answer is “no, it does not”?

Ensure that your email language is relevant to the times 

Noted with thanks: Did you really, though? Perhaps to sound less like a bot, alternatives such as “all right”, “got it”, or a simple “thank you” would suffice.

Please advise: A question of style and usage. Some people do not like it because it sounds rude; others think it is demanding. The real problem is related to spelling. Advice with a ‘c’ is a noun, meaning suggestions for what to do, whereas advise with an ‘s’ is a verb meaning to give advice. Mix the two up and chances are, you might need advice on your spelling, on top of the question you are asking.

Please find attached: Why implore your reader to search for something that is already staring at them? Then again, some people might genuinely miss out on the attachment. Maybe it would be better to say: “I have attached...”

Revert: A perennial favourite used instead of “reply”. Revert means to return to a previous state, topic or practice. As much as this word is often misused, trying to kick the habit might be a lost cause since many people are likely to, erm, revert to it. Language is always changing, after all, and a few dictionaries have already accepted this business English definition of ‘revert’.

Know the meaning behind certain email terms before using themAt the stroke of midnight, Cinderella’s carriage reverted to a pumpkin.

I’m playing the devil’s advocate here: …to say something contrarian while fending off possible repercussions and consequences.

In the interest of time (especially in a meeting): If it were, the meeting would not drag on.

Use terms that are relevant to the context of the situation

Let’s take this offline: Generally, it means to take an issue back to a smaller group for further discussion. But it could also mean the issue will not be spoken of ever again.

Repeat again: Again. (OK, in case you did not get it, “again” is redundant after the word repeat). Just say: “Please repeat.”

This might be off-topic: And it usually is. But why undermine yourself and your unique way of connecting the dots from the start? Be bold! (Unless it’s truly distracting from the conversation at hand, then perhaps reconsider your timing.)

Let’s circle back on this: When someone lacks immediate... bandwidth.

As with all things in life though, how these phrases are received depends on the context and relationship between sender and recipient. In fact, you might not even have thought twice about these phrases until we brought them up.

But surely, you must have some examples that rub you the wrong way. Why not share them with us?

What are some of your biggest bugbears with it comes to work buzzwords?

Share the phrases that perplex or plague you with confusion at psd_challenge@psd.gov.sg along with what they mean and some examples of the words in use.

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  • POSTED ON
    Aug 11, 2021
  • TEXT BY
    Keval Singh
  • ILLUSTRATION BY
    Ryan Ong
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