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Profanity and the Power of Language: When Words Offend

November 15, 2010

If you ever read To Kill A Mockingbird (or saw the movie for that matter) when you were in school, you may be as shocked as I was to learn that the book is sometimes “deshelved” in school libraries. The reason: some people object to its use of language.

I read about this absurd example of censorship the other day in a national newspaper article. The article describes the trial, which took place in 1960, regarding whether or not Penguin books was guilty of publishing obscenity when they released D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, that language and the words we use are powerful enough to trigger lawsuits. And today, fifty years after that trial, the controversy over language still flourishes. In fact, according to the newspaper article, last year in the U.S., around 400 books were officially challenged – and the numbers are rising.

What’s even more shocking, some times books aren’t just banned, they’re burned. Among them, is a book by one of our great Canadian authors, Rohinton Mistry.  Not only was his book, Such A Long Journey, recently banned by Mumbai University, copies of it were burned on campus! Although the reasons for this extreme reaction are political and complex, objection to the use of profanity was among them.

It may seem difficult to fathom this extreme response to Mistry’s writing, given the amount of profanity that’s visible (and audible!) daily, in our society. But what’s deemed inappropriate or immoral not only changes over time, it also depends on the prevailing social or cultural viewpoint. However, when it comes to business writing it’s a whole lot more straightforward. Of course, the possibility of offending a reader still exists. But if you stick to the following Language Lab business writing blueprint, the chances of banning or burning are slim.

Be Aware: The Language Lab’s Top Five Business Writing Principles:

1. Be aware of your audience. Chances are it’s a client, a potential client or other professionals. Naturally your language should reflect that same professionalism.
2. Be concise. Short sentences and straightforward language will ensure your message is transmitted as clearly and quickly as possible.
3. Be correct. Use correct grammar, spelling and sentence structure that reflect your professionalism and communicate your ideas clearly.
4. Be jargon-free. Using jargon may at best confuse your reader; at worst alienate her or him. (See: Business English, Annoying Jargon).
5. Be traditional. When it comes to writing business letters, use correct business letter format. Doing so reflects your professionalism, and the professionalism of your organization.

Obviously within each of the above points there are many things to consider, and skills to learn. So, (if I may take a moment for a wee plug), you may be interested to know that one of the many communication-improving courses offered by The Language Lab is specifically about how to write effective business letters. If you’d like more information about Letters That Work, please don’t hesitate to contact me:

Meanwhile, I recommend always coming back to the above five Language Lab “be aware” principles in your own business communications. That way you can rest assured you’re unlikely to create a document that anyone will want to ban…let alone burn.

For more information about book banning, visit Freedom to Read!


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