Our job may be to create and deliver bespoke technical solutions designed to minimise, adapt to, or bounce back quickly from a dangerous increase in environmental problems. However, our business currency is information – and its value is linked to the adept use of good English and maths.
Celebrated writer, thinker and wit George Bernard Shaw put his finger on the button when he famously described England and America as two nations divided by a common language. As I hope to explain below, it is essential that we work very closely with our clients through the medium of a common language.
To be effective and cost-efficient, any environmental solution worth its salt needs to be technically correct. However, successful implementation often hinges on an accurate interpretation of detailed suggestions and recommendations. And that is where good communication comes in.
As highly-qualified planning consultants and environmental consultants, I believe we have a duty to describe complex situations which may appear simple to us as professionals in clear straightforward terms that everyone involved can understand.
Because time is money – particularly if mistakes could be made – it is important that our specialist teams and valued clients are not divided by the lack of well-explained good English, even if it is often robust and creative.
Bad use of English – syntax or sin tax?
I admit this is a bit of a bee in my bonnet … but I think it is an extremely important bee!
Gone are the days, I hope, when the sciences and arts were separated – sometimes physically by long school corridors, or college and university departments that rarely spoke to each other.
The socio-economic impacts of environmental solutions in today’s warming and generally more risk-prone world are so important that the chances that ne’er the twain shall meet can be costly.
However, progress seldom occurs by magic, and part of Enzygo’s mission has to be to cultivate and be known for the use of the easily-read, unambiguous modern successor of old Anglo Saxon.
Our clients are dedicated people. However, no-one wants to waste time figuring out the meaning of convoluted reports when key concepts can be expressed clearly from what our American colleagues ‘across the pond’ might describe enthusiastically as the get-go.
Obviously, this is a wide field. However, I thought it might be interesting to look at some frequently misused building bricks – namely commas, apostrophes, syntax … and common sense.
Maths … the magic of numbers
Why maths too at this point? I was struck by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s early 2023 goal for the UK to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”, although this may be more an aspiration than a policy.
I recognise his logic that we now live in a world, “… where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before”. He added that to let, “… our children out into the world without those skills, is letting our children down”.
How this will be achieved has not yet been spelt out, although Downing Street hopes to improve on existing qualifications and explore “more innovative options”.
I can’t say that young people I have spoken to welcome the PM’s idea of compulsory school maths studies until the age of 18! But maths is a crucial language when technical details are involved.
Modern environmental problem-solving concepts are essentially mathematical. They may be bread and butter to experts, but to help non-technical people, their interpretation must often be shared through straightforward, no-nonsense clear English.
We are fortunate at Enzygo (www.enzygo.com) that our young apprentice and graduate trainees seem to take this in their stride. It is important that we continue to support them. I will look at maths again later.
Commas, apostrophes, syntax … and common sense
I’m certainly no language expert. There are an estimated 171,146 words in modern English created by permutations and combinations of the alphabet’ twenty-six letters.
More important to environmental consultants as communicators is how they are structured, linked and divided.
Far be it for me to teach my grandmother how to suck eggs. However, there is obviously a major difference in meaning between the phrases “let’s eat Grandmother” and “let’s eat, Grandmother”.
Many of us are guilty of using too many or too few commas – and putting them in the wrong places. A simple error can mean a major difference in meaning. Care is needed.
And then there is the curious Oxford Comma. This is used before the last item in a list to add further clarification. As an example, using the Oxford Comma we have “We invited the dogs, Bill, and Ben”, and without it “We invited the dogs, Bill and Ben”.
All I can say about syntax is that the sentence, “She told him that she loved him” has a meaning that can be changed six times by adding the word ‘only’ – “She only told him that she loved him”, “She told only him that she loved him”, “She told him only that she loved him”, “She told him that only she loved him”, “She told him that she only loved him”, and “She told him that she loved only him”.
However, all this is simple compared to the dreaded apostrophe!
Bristol’s phantom apostrophe corrector
Driven mad by misused punctuation, Jon Smith was unmasked by the BBC in 2017 as a self-appointed “grammar vigilante” who set out through the streets of sleeping Bristol every night with an extended mop and brush to correct apostrophes used wrongly on signs and shop fronts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-39459831 and https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/apr/03/banksy-of-punctuation-puts-full-stop-bad-grammar-bristol).
Knows as the ‘Banksy of punctuation’ – the ‘real’ Banksy also comes from Bristol – his mission over a decade has been to put a full stop to bad grammar around the city.
He began his career by scratching out an unnecessary apostrophe on a single sign, but he went on to develop his “apostrophiser” – a long-handled tool to add or cover up offending punctuation marks.
Jon also made a special stepladder that does not have to be leant against shop windows – and carries a set square and scalpel to ensure his work is neat and precise.
Against accusations that his work is probably illegal, he replied, “I’m sticking on a bit of sticky-back plastic. It’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong.”
That’s the kind of dedication I feel we must also bring to our own communications!
The cult of mathematics?
Guardian columnist Sir Simon Jenkins argues that maths has become a cult which, because it is easily measured, dominates global education with a status equivalent to Medieval Latin.
Maths is either right or wrong, he says. Its targets are international with classifiable results that can be put into league tables. It is also largely immune to political bias (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jan/05/maths-schools-rishi-sunak-arts-sport?utm_term=63b8539c692b30dbc2e2cd48ca89ad9d&utm_campaign=BestOfGuardianOpinionUK&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=opinionuk_email).
He cautions that while everyone agrees young people must be able to handle numbers, and that ‘some professions need special skills, scientific, linguistic and numerical’, imposing a central curriculum for teenagers to master the ‘complex and abstract concepts soon forgotten’ is unrealistic.
However, he adds that mathematics is the language of science and studying it does not close any doors. Rather, it makes it relatively easy to embrace other sciences, economics, or quantitative information areas.
Whichever way it is achieved, I can confirm that maths is, and will continue to be, a cornerstone of statistically-based measuring and monitoring professions such as our own at Enzygo – particular where modern modelling techniques are involved.
I would also like to take this opportunity to mention purely out of personal interest a subject that has intrigued me for a long time – the concept of extremely large numbers.
A googol (not google) is 10100. This is actually quite small. There is also the quadrillion, quintillion, sextillion, septillion, octillion, nonillion, and decillion – each is a thousand times larger than its predecessor. However, the centillion is one 100303.
Many of these numbers are too large to be displayed physically in the known universe. But we know they exist because microchip technology could not work without them! Fascinating.
English and the engineering-related professions
Old English language, aka Anglo-Saxon, was a spoken and written language in England before 1100 and is the ancestor of Middle English and Modern English.
The Old English language has four dialects – Northumbrian in northern England and south-eastern Scotland, Mercian in central England, Kentish in south-eastern England, and West Saxon in southern and south-western England. Mercian and Northumbrian are often seen as the Anglian dialects.
Most Old English writings were in the West Saxon dialect. England became a kingdom in the 10th century. The first great period of Anglo Saxon literary was the 9th century under King Alfred the Great.
University English for engineers and kindred professions
Roll forward a millennium, and the tradition is continues in UK universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, as modern English for engineering – a discipline akin to our own. For example: –
– Cambridge English for Engineering focuses on proficient language use in all engineering disciplines that involve procedures and precautions, monitoring and control, and engineering design.
– English for Engineers helps Oxford students take a commercial and individual view of their professions; English for Electrical and Mechanical Engineering combines English and technical knowledge.
– English for Engineers at the University of Southampton notes that, “… Engineering is often perceived as a hands-on, technical profession. But there is increasing demand for softer skills”.
– English Courses in Portsmouth for Engineers improves language use with “staff, other managers, suppliers, external colleagues, and other engineers internally or internationally” with “… the correct vocabulary, phrasing, appropriateness, context and style”.
Language skills, it says, are vital in meetings, teleconferencing, successful negotiations, presenting Information diplomatically, telephoning, socialising and networking, basic e-mails and letters, all forms of report writing, and, interestingly, promoting cross-cultural awareness.
I like to think that we continue this great legacy, and take it a step further in our communications with clients, planning officers, local communities, regulators, statutory bodies, and the media.
This may be through daily conversations, phone calls, and electronic links, but also technical documents that include environmental audits and environmental impact assessments (EIA), environmental management systems (EMS), flood risk assessments, landscape management proposals, transport, noise, air quality, and ecological impact reports, plus habitat surveys.
Common sense …
I have left common sense until last because applied wisely it can override most of the rules above. A famous example was penned by former Prime Minister, prolific author and writer, Sir Winston Churchill.
Chastised by an editor for ending a sentence with a preposition, he responded with, “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” The less kindly version of what he said was, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
His sentence was syntactically correct … but clearly nonsense, as he was well aware. Common sense must always take ultimate precedence over impractical rules – a principle we should remember in our own modest communications!
Matt Travis, Company Director, Enzygo Ltd.
See the LinkedIn article – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/good-plain-english-maths-environmental-solutions-enzygo-limited