I got a reminder of this at the ‘Evolving English’ exhibition recently at the British Library.
One of the things I discovered at the event is that there are around 1.8 billion people who speak English as a first or second language. As those of us who write for a living know only too well, that’s a big audience.
Add in the fact that something like two billion people have internet access these days (although, admittedly, not all of them will speak English), and it got me thinking: whenever we publish a story, blog or tweet in cyberspace, it could – potentially – be read by millions, if not billions, of people.
That’s a big responsibility.
Always ‘write for your audience’, we’re told in our journalism training. And – like the television presenter who pretends they’re talking to their mum down the camera lens – we’re encouraged to picture a ‘Mr or Mrs Average’ within that audience and write for them.
But, as I learned at the exhibition, language has always distinguished between different groups of people.
For instance, in the mid-20th century, if you were upper class you had lunch in the day and dinner in the evening; while if you were aspiring middle class you had dinner in the day and tea in the evening.
Language is always evolving too. I know that. But I’m a traditionalist: I always use the correct spelling in my text messages, for instance.
Am I a dinosaur? Maybe – I admit that I can’t tell the difference between a modern dance track and the sound of my car alarm going off – but I know there are some people who are happy to write ‘cu l8r m8 lol’ in their texts and the recipient will know exactly what they mean.
Should we start using this language when we write, in our client work?
No, I don’t think so. We should all be aware of how English is changing, but I’m not ready to start using text speak in feature articles just yet. And, at the moment, it would alienate more people than it would delight.
We do have a responsibility to reach as many people as possible, though, so there may be a place for it – as part of a reader feedback section, perhaps, such as those used by some tabloids – but until it becomes part of the middle ground, I’m going to continue writing for the existing ‘John’ or ‘Julie’, the ‘Mr or Mrs Average’ within each audience.