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Banning words is no guide to style

Posted by Tim Richardson on 21st June 2022

Sacre bleu! France’s language police have banned some words and phrases linked to computer gaming as part of its cultural remit to ‘preserve the integrity’ of la belle France.

According to a report via AFP, the cultural guardians at the Académie Française warned that the video gaming industry was “rife with anglicisms that could act as ‘a barrier to understanding’ for non-gamers.

As a result, it’s advised that the phrase “pro-gamer” should be replaced by “joueur professionnel”, while “streamer” becomes “joueur-animateur en direct”.

This is the same organisation that suggested the commonly used le wifi be replaced with l’access sans fil à l’internet (wireless access to the internet).

What are words worth?

It’s not clear exactly how successful this latest protectionist move will be. While such pronouncements are made fairly regularly, they are not necessarily followed.

Of course, such a draconian outlawing of foreign words and phrases would never happen on this side of La Manche.

Unless, of course, you work at the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – the esteemed body responsible for data privacy.

The Mail on Sunday used a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) to obtain a copy of a new style guide for ICO staff, in which certain Latin and French words and phrases are banned. Why? Because the words may ‘alienate’ some of its readers.

In other words, the ICO perfectly expects people to understand the complexity and nuance of data protection legislation and GDPR but reckons people won’t be able to understand the term cul-de-sac. Or incognito if they’re trying to hide from their data trail.

A spokesman for the ICO told the newspaper: “The purpose of the style guide is to ensure our written communications are clear, easy to follow and accessible to all ICO audiences.”

Take care with style guides

Exactly. Clear, written language is something we should all strive for…unless the purpose is to obfuscate. Mislead. Or even, misinform. And then you’re in a whole new ballpark – or amphitheatre, as the Ancients used to say.

Like dieting or a new year’s resolution, those who decide to create a style guide for their business or organisation may start with the best of intentions, but few follow it through successfully. Why? Because creating a style guide is hard.

The very premise of a style guide is to set in stone things – language, words, grammar, even – that are essentially fluid.

Which is why trying to nail down a style guide can become a tricky business. No sooner has it gone to pixel, than it’s out of date. And just because something’s written down, it doesn’t mean it will be followed or observed. Or escape the attention of hacks at a Sunday newspaper.

That said, it does show leadership – especially when it comes to corporate communications.

So, if you are keen to use one, the Guardian and Observer have made their style guide available online. And if you work with public sector organisations, then the government has recently updated its own Digital Service style guide which covers all content published on GOV.UK.

Then again, if you’re really serious, you could always write your own. If you are, don’t be too ambitious – to begin with at least. Start with language and terms that are relevant to your company or organisation over which you have control and upon which everyone can agree.

Then you can move on to keywords and phrases that relate to you, for instance, is it ‘login’, ‘log in’ or ‘log-in’? Of course, you could simply use a dictionary.

Whatever you do, Bonne chance!

Tim Richardson