Some people in the public eye appear to be effortlessly articulate. Then there are those whose ability to mangle language is either excruciatingly painful or hilarious to witness.
Behind a charismatic, confident and measured ability to address a crowd or hold court is usually an ability to write well – or the ability to hire a great writer. You can expect to be held to a high standard if you make words part of your business, so here are some important examples in minding the gaffe.
Tautology and catachresis
David Coleman was a much-loved BBC sports commentator, famed for his distinctive voice, enthusiasm… and the ability to make amusing tautologies, or sentences that are irrefutable and thereby virtually meaningless. Private Eye paid regular tribute to this ‘skill’ with their Colemanballs column. His gems include:
“Forest have now lost six matches without winning.”
“If that had gone in, it would have been a goal.”
Pundits are also prone to catachresis, or the misuse of words. Common is the use of ‘literally’ instead of ‘figuratively’:
“After the first goal went in you could literally see the Derby players shrinking” – Alan Shearer
“Craig Bellamy has literally been on fire” – Ally McCoist
“That pass to Rooney was literally on a plate” – Jamie Redknapp
Somewhat unbelievably, the overuse of literally as a form of emphasis resulted in it gaining a new entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011. Given the controversy of this move, it’s probably best to avoid using ‘literally’ in your content. It could easily be removed from each of the examples above.
There is plenty to learn about malapropism from some of the things reality TV stars say. But anyone can use a word that sounds similar to the word that was intended by mistake. Because malapropism usually has an amusing, non-sensical effect it is often used as a comic device in drama and literature. The lesson for content creators? Don’t simply use a word based on what you’ve heard – check out the meaning, and the spelling.
Malapropisms from the late Big Brother contestant Jade Goody proved heavenly manna for the tabloids. Her output included:
“They were trying to use me as an escape goat.”
“Where is East Angular?”
Her heir apparent is Towie star Joey Essex:
“I’ve learnt that Africa is a consonant.”
Joey has also been known to create neologisms, such as:
“I’m not a confrontational person. I’ll only confrontate if it’s for a purpose.”
Since the 1980s, former Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood was an early champion of predominantly black American rap music in the UK mainstream. But his slangy patter has often been mocked, owing to the fact that Westwood is the white, middle-class son of a bishop. What appears to be hypocorrection – the use of slang as strategy – would not really be necessary for someone considered an expert in their field.
As well as using perfectly pitched language, your lesson in business is to make sure your expertise sings to your audience. This should make any kind of hypocorrection unnecessary – sincerity always shines through.
“I love how you are getting down in your little buffet of savory desserts.”
“It’s selected cheeses, with some biscuits.”
Factual and grammatical accuracy
Perhaps the people in the public eye we are least likely to forgive verbal faux pas are politicians. And American politicians come up for some serious criticism. When the self-styled ‘leaders of the free world’ can’t deliver gaffe-free speech, or even manage factual accuracy, the public deems them fair game… The lesson? The more powerful and the more prominent your business, the harder the fall, and the harsher the criticism will be.
George W Bush, former US president:
“They misunderestimated me.”
“Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?”
Sarah Palin, former US vice-presidential candidate:
“There is hope and opportunity in our neighbouring country of Afghanistan.”