Are You a Luddite?

16 May 2013

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‘Luddite’ is the name given to the textile machine operators in 19th-century England who destroyed the machines they worked on as a form of industrial protest.


The real cause of their protests is debatable. But most people believe that Luddites saw the new machines as a threat, as something that could make their skills obsolete and put them out of a job.


That’s why the term ‘Luddite’ is used today to describe people who resist technological change. Calling someone a Luddite is like saying, ‘You’re an old-fashioned anti-technology dinosaur.’


‘Luddite’ writers

When it comes to writing, people who use old-fashioned English seem resistant to modernizing their style. I call them ‘Luddite’ writers.


Let’s look at an example of old-fashioned writing style.


Dear Martin


Kindly be reminded that the Personnel Department’s deadline for our yearly performance reports is the end of this month. Please find the attached draft reports prepared by your subordinates for their staff. Your kind review and sign-off of said reports on or before the 25th would be greatly appreciated.


(I’ll show you how to modernize this language below.)


Why don’t they change?

There could be several reasons why people seem to prefer using an old-fashioned writing style.


1.    One possible reason is that that’s what they learned at school, and it’s just hard to change something you’ve learned at an early age. (Or maybe they just don’t have time to learn something new.)


Alternatively, they may have learned old-fashioned writing style by using older letters in their work files as templates. Often, those letters were written by using even older files as templates. So old-fashioned style gets passed down from previous generations.


2.   Another reason could be that people are afraid to use everyday modern wording because they think it doesn’t sound ‘business-like’ and sophisticated.


3.   A third reason could be that writers don’t want to sound ‘different’ from others – especially their bosses. (And unfortunately, many bosses write in an old-fashioned style!) People whose jobs involve a lot of writing in English may fear their job security if they don’t use the same language as their bosses.


Are templates still okay to use?

For everyday documents, it’s probably okay to use templates – as long as you don’t fall into the old-fashioned writing style traps.


But remember that every situation you write about is unique. Readers expect you to write relevant, complete documents that handle those unique situations. This means that templates can only be ‘skeleton’ guidelines at best; the email, letter or report will need to be customized.


How can you ‘modernize’ your writing style?

Let’s go back to the example above.


Try to imagine having a conversation with ‘Martin’ and actually saying what was written. It’s hard to believe that anyone living in the 21st century actually talks like that.


You should instead write letters and emails in a conversational tone; that is, write what you would actually say face-to-face. Even if your reader is the CEO of your company, using a polite, objective conversational tone is best.


If you use old-fashioned wording because you think it’s more polite, it could backfire. Your words should reflect the real ‘you’. Trying to sound like you’re worshipping the reader may not come across as sincere or honest.


The modern version

Here’s how you can write the above message using polite, modern style:


Dear Martin


I would like to remind you that the deadline for submitting performance reports to the Personnel Department is the end of this month.


Your assistant managers have all written draft reports for their staff (see the attached documents).


If you could please review these reports, sign them and return them to me by the 25th, then we can ensure that we meet the deadline.


Please let me know if you need any further information relating to the performance reviews.


Thank you very much.


Language notes

·      The magic words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are timeless, so use them often.


·      ‘Please be reminded’ is a passive voice construction, which is impersonal. It’s both more polite and personal to use the active voice construction: ‘I would like to remind you…’


·      I frequently see the clause ‘please find the attached’, which always makes me laugh and think to myself, ‘did they lose it?’


It’s better to indicate attachments in parentheses at a relevant point. You can say any of the following: (attached), (see the attached), (see the attached documents). Alternatively, you could say ‘I have attached the draft reports your assistant managers have written for their staff.’


·      Note the ‘if-contract’ language: ‘If you could… then we can…’ If-contract sentences are a polite way to make a request. They show the reader the benefit of doing or giving you something. In the example situation, I’m sure that Martin is interested in meeting deadlines, so he will probably keep up his end of the ‘contract’ and get the requested work done on time.


·      Some words I’ve not used:

o   ‘kind’ and ‘kindly’ as used in the original example are very old-fashioned. ‘Kindly’ is another word for ‘please’; so it’s redundant to say ‘please kindly…’

o   ‘said reports’ is also old-fashioned and stuffy sounding. You can almost always replace ‘said’ with ‘the’ or ‘these’


Your thoughts

How do you feel about your writing tone? Do you have concerns or questions about old-fashioned language? If so, please comment below or send me an email.


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