Why words matter in Pedants’ Corner

I was driving home from Pembrokeshire yesterday, with Radio 5 Live’s Richard Bacon inviting listeners to ‘moan in’ about the little things that drive them to distraction. Apart from the fact that all the callers were blokes, it was interesting to hear the range of minor matters that would wind them up – from the pregnant pause before a contestant is ejected from The X Factor to a supermarket brand of fishcake which is said to contain more potato than fish. ‘It should be called a potatocake,’ the caller said.

It was a great platform for pedants, with the fishcake gripe winning moan of the day, and I started thinking about the things that get to me. I am pedantic (and proud of it) over loose language. Most professions contain such examples, and they could never be blamed for doing much harm on their own; words innocently misused, included for no reason or just plain wrong. But their misuse in the ‘wider world’ can hinder understanding and stop organisations connecting with those they are trying to engage (but more about that word later). Even journalism – that bastion of ‘plain speaking’ – is full of words rarely used by the public (blaze, blow and blunder to mention three). Any organisation committed to using plain English should avoid using these phrases in public. Here are a few that matter to me.

Decant: This is used by local councils and housing providers to describe the process of moving tenants from their homes, often to allow for major work or regeneration to take place. Sounds important, urgent even. But what’s wrong with move?

Engage with: I think this is an Americanism, like meet with or (worse) meet up with, but it’s become so widely used now that I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle with this one. But it’s engage and meet. With is without use. Therefore, it should not be used.

Mixed use: This phrase is often used by developers and planners to describe to the public schemes that include homes, offices and shops. It is a concept which sets out the principles on which many developments are based. But it is surely better to describe what’s in the ‘mix’. Homes and shops (not retail use) is better, if that’s what is on offer.

Stock: Or homes to you and I, as in the council’s housing stock. This word is well used in social housing circles, with stock transfer being the process by which the ownership and management of council homes is switched to another landlord. It’s a cold way of describing real people’s homes, in the same way as you would items of clothing in a shop. In my old job, we encouraged local authorities to use the terms homes and housing rather than stock when talking to tenants about their transfer proposals. And to use LSVT (I think, Large Scale Voluntary Transfer) is a step too far.

Voids: I once sat in a meeting early in my PR career where voids were discussed – ‘we are working to reduce the number of voids’ – and felt completely at sea. I don’t remember empty homes being mentioned, which would have been helpful.

Works: As in improvement works are due to start in… This is another common one. But why works and not work?

These are only a small number of examples. And then there’s all the acronyms (ALMO, ASBO, LCHO, NAHP), which require a lot more than this blog posting to get through. Pedants’ Corner can feel like a lonely place with all that’s going on in the world. But words matter there, and that’s why people like me are regular visitors.

3 thoughts on “Why words matter in Pedants’ Corner

  1. I heard that those who work in the Jobcentre describe their clients as ‘stock’. Now that really is offensive!

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