Saturday, January 27, 2007

English vs. American

If you asked me what I thought of English back in the 8th grade, I would have told you three things: (1) The language is only there to torment me, (2) Mrs. Free and her classwork were the officially sanctioned tormentors, and (3) Code is a much more efficient method of communicating.

I somehow managed to flip a bit in college and ended up minoring in Creative Writing. (I think it had something to do with the 28 women and 4 guys in my Introduction to Creative Writing class.) I've since become a bit of a grammar Nazi.

Most of the folks that I've worked with have only known the "Steve who is comfortable with writing" vs. the 8th Grade Steve that hated it. So when I make a statement like "Make sure you write this in American", they are typically stunned.

"American? Didn't you mean English?"

No, I meant American. The two are different and when you're trying to communicate with an audience that isn't fluent in your lingo, the difference is important. With English, you can make statements that are grammatically correct but make no sense to the listener. A feat commonly achieved in the world of technology. Trying to make the same statement in American is not unlike trying to make your choice of words understandable by your grandmother.

In contrast to English, "American" has a limited vocabulary. The only words available are those that are used by typical adults in the US. (Adjusted of course, for the level of education you're targeting your statement for.) This means that the only technical terms are those that have managed to make it to the mainstream like web, software, email, Internet, and computer. American is a much more constrained language and doesn't let you communicate much if any detail, but it does the perfect job of separating those that have the background and want detail and those that don't care to know any deeper.

My favorite example of this comes from the way that I described the products from my last job. When asked by people outside the industry, I answered "My product makes web sites go faster." It's an ambiguous statement that drove some of my co-workers nuts, but for the overwhelming majority that weren't in my industry it was perfect.

The reason I don't care for the target of "being able to tell your grandmother" is because most people have written off their grandmother as being the kind of person they would even bother trying to explain themselves to. American on the other hand is something that you would tell your childhood friend that majored in something different.

If you haven't already, think about it... Can you tell your friends from college that majored in something different about what you do? Can you say it in American and have them "get it"? If you haven't tried to do this recently, I highly recommend it.



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