‘I am a dog,’ said the French exchange student.

‘You’re a dog?’

‘Yes, I am a dog, and a cat, and two ‘amsters.’

‘You mean you have a dog, a cat and two hamsters.’

‘Ah yes, I ‘ave a dog, a cat and two amsters.’

The pitfalls of an unfamiliar language. When you’re learning a different language it’s hard to remember which one is ‘to be’ and which one is ‘to have’.  And the other one that trips people up (in French to English) is getting his and hers right.

Our exchange student would say ‘My father drives her car to work every day.’ In French a car is female so the idea of talking about ‘his car’ seemed ridiculous.

If you don’t grow up speaking a language, it can take a while to pick it up. The same goes for business language.  In business we sometimes see two people who speak the same language take a totally different meaning from the same word.

We were sat in a meeting. It was unusual because it included a senior executive and a man who plays percussion in West End shows. The executive used the word ‘showstopper’. And that’s when the confusion started. The meaning of that word for our executive was a situation that stopped negotiations on a contract.

To our percussionist, a showstopper is a song that’s so wonderful that it stops the show, until the audience finally gives up cheering and sits down again. Both people knew they were right. The percussionist was really right, but the executive’s entire company had picked up and used showstopper to mean the exact opposite. As far as she was concerned, her version was correct.

And this is what happens in business – a word with one meaning starts to be used in an ‘incorrect’ way and is passed around the whole organisation.

A common one in bad business language is affect and effect. If you’ve used these since you were young, their meanings are obvious and their use comes naturally. But have you ever tried to explain it to people who get it wrong.

‘If we change this, it will effect the result.’

‘Nope, it’s “If we change this, it will affect the result.” ’

‘But the first one sounds right.’

‘No it doesn’t.’

To affect means to influence.

To effect means to make something happen or to do. (Ugly word. Avoid it. Use ‘do’ or ‘make it happen’ instead.)

An effect is an influence.

We all pick up language from the people around us. What if our little group uses it differently from everyone else? Who’s right?

Look what’s happened to disinterested – which means very interested in the process but not bothered about the result – but which people use to mean uninterested, the complete opposite of what it says in the dictionary.

There are people who know their dictionary definitions (like the percussionist) and there are people who’ve picked things up and believe they know the meaning (like the executive).

It can help, in the interests of clarity, to use a dictionary.

Someone’s gone to the trouble of defining a word for us, to be helpful, so that the entire English speaking world can be clear. The least we can do is look it up if we don’t know what it means. It’s not good enough to say, ‘Well where I work they use it to mean this,’ and accept that as the truth.

At work, people like the show-stopping executive have crammed their business tone of voice with misunderstood jargon and borrowed buzzwords.

How to be clear:

  • If in doubt, ask. Find the person in your office who’s a word buff or give us a call.
  • If you get an explanation you don’t understand, look it up.
  • If you don’t understand that, use a word you do understand instead.
  • Ask someone outside your own industry if what you’re writing is clear.

And that way, you’ll be saving time, money, postage, and lost customers