When is it OK to use slang in business writing?

This is an extract from the 30 Day Basic

Slang (Def Leppard song)

Slang (Def Leppard song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Business Writing Challenge by @SuzanStMaur

So – it’s slang time!

This is a highly debatable topic in business writing. Just how much slang is permissible in business text depends greatly on the nature of the text you’re writing and particularly, its intended audience.

If you’re writing a very informal piece, relevant slang is perfectly acceptable. In a formal piece, the occasional slang word or phrase is probably acceptable. Where slang doesn’t tend to work, ever, is in English text that is destined to be read by non-English native speakers, or when it’s destined to be translated.

English, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and other English slang just doesn’t translate into other languages, so if you’re writing for translation please avoid it at all costs.

But what is slang?

Good one. Slang in English or pretty much all other languages is defined as follows, according to Dictionary.com:

  • Very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid and ephemeral than ordinary language, as “hit the road.”
  • (in English and some other languages) speech and writing characterized by the use of vulgar and socially taboo vocabulary and idiomatic expressions
  • The jargon of a particular class, profession, etc
  • The special vocabulary of thieves, vagabonds, etc.; argot.

Want some more?

Here is what the wonderful Jonathon Green – a very good friend of mine and the world’s leading lexicographer of English slang – wrote as a foreword in my recent book, “English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations” (which focuses on about 2,000 words and phrases – not only slang, but also proper business terms – and the translations you need between English and American and vice versa.)

“We should all, of course, be talking American by now. It is, after all, the basis of ‘world English’ and this is a global civilization, where the ever-expanding Internet communicates largely in American English and our popular culture, enjoyed by everyone, English-speaking or otherwise, dances to a Stateside tune. Nowhere more so than in the world I know best – English-language slang – where we have been using more and more American words since World War II and where, today, it seems that the under-thirties, irrespective of nationality or colour, all talk like a teenage black American.

Yet of course we don’t. “English” English remains the mother tongue, and if we actually live in the UK, that is still what we talk. The language changes; it has been changing since Anglo-Saxon was replaced by Anglo-Norman and the various regional dialects had to give way to that of ever-dominant London, the language that became known as ‘standard English’. Not everyone talks ‘standard’, not everyone opts for ’received pronunciation’ or what used to be called ‘BBC English’, but in the end we still speak, in every sense, with an English accent. Meanwhile, three thousand miles to the west, they do things their way.

When, in 1776 the US declared its independence, the ex-colonists were still talking pretty much in the way they would have done had they or their grandparents stayed at home. But a new country requires a new language, or at least a version of an older one, and Americans were quick off the mark. The lexicographer Noah Webster, whose great Dictionary appeared in 1828 and who in 1789 had been the first to use the phrase ‘the American language’, was determined to push the project forward. As well as collecting and explaining words, he created a whole new mode of spelling: it was not just a simplified, and what he saw as more practical version of the UK’s notoriously problematic system, but a reflection of a new world, not to be tied to old and outmoded European habits.

It is to Webster that we owe such differences as center/centre, flavour/flavour, check/cheque, the dropping of the second ‘l’ in words like ‘traveled’ and so on.

On occasion his enthusiasm took him over the top, such as tung for tongue and ake for ache, and much would be dropped, but the change had come and would not go away.

Since then, at least in their standard speech, the two nations have moved apart.

As the lists that follow make clear, Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted suggestion that they are ‘separated by a common language’ still holds true. It may be that we understand each other a little better – on the whole we don’t need subtitles to enjoy each other’s TV shows and movies – and the days of re-editing our respective novels to replace ‘different’ words are mainly gone, but the gap remains.

And that gap can lead to embarrassment. It is not just a matter of setting one’s spell-checker and keyboard to US or UK English. The blushing American woman,  seconded to the London office, and asked if she has a rubber (US = condom /UK = eraser), her opposite number the stiff-upper-lipped Brit executive in New York, who is asked whether she wears pants (US = trousers / UK knickers, though knickers is also a problem: it means shorts in the US) to work. Slang may be increasingly international but it too has its pitfalls. The American bum is something very different in Britain: the former a tramp, the other the human posterior. Sometimes the words just don’t travel, such as US fall for UK autumn, although ‘fall of the leaf’, its origin, was once used in 16th century England.

Difference, of course, can enliven. America and Britain are very different, for all that the original colonists were in part British-born. The UK has its immigrants, but their arrival has never created anything like the great American melting pot, still boiling as urgently as ever. Why not have alternative vocabularies? It is necessary, however, to remember that alternative can also mean other…”

Enough with the theory – how do we handle slang?

An awful lot depends, as always, on your business audience. If you’re selling rock music concerts to teenagers, not only should you not avoid slang, but you should embrace it – provided that you get it right. If you’re selling life insurance policies to middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites, you should avoid it.

Once again, as always, you need to use common sense to determine what slang in your text is:

a) Acceptable (may not be ideal as a replacement for the formal form, but could make your text sound more friendly and approachable)

b) Desirable (makes your text appear to be in touch with the current terms used informally within that industry)

c) Undesirable (despite being commonly used, some slang terms give a sloppy, unprofessional image)

d) Taboo (terms that are detrimental to your business or industry and would make your text appear negative and out of touch)

Your slang challenge for today

Here is a short paragraph of promotional text aimed at restaurant users in your district.

The restaurant specializes in French cuisine and is known for its high-quality service and food. It aims to attract the middle-aged, middle-market customer as well as younger customers wanting an elegant night out. Reword it as you think is appropriate, leaving what slang you feel works…

Come and hang out at La Boutonière, (city’s) latest food-fest for savvy gourmets. Shake down with one of our cool cocktails when you get here, while you eyeball our menu of yum-yum treats including sweet-meat seafood plus the most in- your-face grilled steaks you’ll find this side of the Rockies. Save some tum-room for our desserts which will just blow your mind with their sweet nothings…and if you’re still upright after those, our coffee specials will lay you out before you can find a cab. Bon appétit!

Like this? See Suzan’s 29 other Challenges in the 30 Day Basic Business Writing ebook:

30 Day Basic Business Writing Challenge – eBook
Are mistakes in your writing letting you down in your career or business? Wish your written communication was as good and professional as you are? Here’s the help you need: the easiest, friendliest way perfect your basic business writing in just 30 enjoyable days
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