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December 2010

Plain offensive

Dailymail
How would you describe the language on this front page? The “pure terror”, the “snarling mob”, the “terror written across her face”, the “steaming gang of masked rioters”?

A few words probably spring to mind – but “plain” is unlikely to be one of them.

Strange, then, that the Daily Mail has been singled out for praise today by the Plain English Campaign. (Yes, it’s National Plain English Day.)

True enough, the words themselves are plain. No one is going to misunderstand “mob”, “gang” and “horror”. But maybe it’s a sign that plain words don’t necessarily add up to plain talking.

Perfectly straightforward language can also add up to some of the most insinuating, sly, offensive writing imaginable.

Still, let’s forget about that and poke fun at a footballer for misusing the word ‘literally’.

This isn’t just any poetry

Mands
There has reportedly been an outbreak of poetry in the usually prosaic world of corporate communications.

Marks & Spencer customer Christine Baxter (pictured) was disappointed to hear her local Grantham branch was closing and wrote to M&S to say so. She decided to write her complaint in verse, which is a great thing in itself. A lady writing a poem to Marks and Spencer in order to complain seems the perfect distillation of everything that is English.

But it gets better, because Alex Hawkins from the executive office at M&S decided to reply in kind. And this isn’t just any poetry – it’s incredibly bad poetry:

 

I completely understand you’re upset,
That our Grantham store will soon be for let.
This decision was not easy to make,
But it’s no mistake,
And we settle on it full of regret.

We know we’ve been with you for years,
And we’ll be leaving with eyes full of tears.
But if a store can’t make money,
There’s clearly something going funny;
This situation any business fears.

Marc wants to open more shops,
But to do this costs lots and lots.
We need the cash in our hand,
To spread the M&S brand.
Right now in Grantham we cannot.

 

On the plus side, the poem has generated some great PR for M&S and it’s nice that someone took the time to write it. But it would also make a fascinating starting point for a thesis on corporate language and poetry.

As modes of language go, they are at opposite ends of the scale. Corporate language necessarily treads carefully, with a tendency to evade responsibility and toe the party line. By contrast, poetry is all about ambiguity and multiplicity – the words go wherever they want. Mix the two together and interesting things can happen.

Take the opening line: “I completely understand you’re upset”. It’s a banal commonplace of corporate complaint handling, but it takes on a different air in poetry – there’s a sense of genuine melancholy (particularly when rhymed later with ‘regret’).

Then there’s the key couplet in the second stanza: “But if a store can’t make money, / There’s clearly something going funny;” The poet is making humorous use of rhyme (funny/money) to make the point seem incontrovertible. Advertisers have long understood the close link between rhyme and reason, and how people often confuse the two. If it sounds right, you tend not to question the logic behind it.

But there is a very questionable argument going on and the tension becomes clear in the third stanza, where the poet claims that “We need the cash in our hand, / To spread the M&S brand.” The simple rhyme again lends an air of common sense to the point. In reality, quite a strange argument is being made – that closing stores is logically the best way to spread the M&S brand.

This tension is betrayed in the language itself, which shifts uncomfortably from the tangible “cash in our hand” to the corporate abstraction of spreading “the M&S brand”. Does casting the argument in poetry highlight this tension or mask it? Maybe it does both.

Either way, the finality of the last line is chilling: “Right now in Grantham we cannot.”

Tonally, this could come straight from Larkin. There’s a sense of a very English politeness masking simmering tensions beneath. Don’t argue back, because we cannot and that’s all there is to it.

None of the news stories so far have included details of Christine Baxter’s original poem, but if it surfaces it should make for a good read.

Sources: Daily Mail and The Guardian