“My English is good enough”

Sometimes we overhear a conversation here at Eton College that goes something like this:

  • How did you do on your essay assignment?
  • Not so good. You know it’s not fair. I worked hard on my essay and I’m pretty sure I understood the topic but I got marked down because the instructor said my English wasn’t good enough, grammar mistakes, misspelling, wrong word choices, and stuff like that. That’s not what this course is supposed to be about!
  • Yeah. That was my main problem too. I try but English isn’t my first language, so it’s really hard for me. They need to consider that!
  • Yeah well my English is good enough. I write a lot you know. Yesterday I must’ve written at least twenty texts, and I know I emailed four of my friends last night. None of them complain about my English; they understand my writing. Our instructor told me I had to read more to improve in my writing and get better reference sources, but he wants me to read really hard articles, and I just don’t like to read.
  • Yeah. You can get the same stuff on Wikipedia and it’s not so hard to understand. You’re right! It’s not fair to say our English isn’t good enough!

Good enough for what?

These students, like the majority of students who come to Eton College, came with a dream. They could have found jobs in a fast food restaurant, a production line or another form of simple service work, but only up to the level where the writing of clear, well-written reports is a requirement of the job. Students come to our college hoping to have a career, not just a job. They want the challenge of being decision makers in fields where the work is varied and interesting. They certainly do not want to be one of the nine million Canadians, one in four workers, who, because they read and write below a grade twelve level, are limited in their employment and promotional opportunities by weak communication skills.

The Conference Board of Canada conducted an extensive survey of Canadian employers asking what they want from an employee, published under the title Employability Skills 2000. This is an interesting document for students to read as, in an extensive wish list of the most desirable employee qualities, nearly a quarter are in the area of communication skills. This is not at all surprising when we consider that to many of the people an employee communicates with, whether a supplier or a client, the voice on the telephone or the author of a message is their only point of contact. This person is the company and the professionalism with which they communicate forms the audience’s concept of the company’s professionalism. “Good enough English” is what employers want and, therefore, what enables you to obtain and maintain that dream job that starts you down your chosen career path.

What does good enough mean?

If you haven’t had experience in working in an office environment, you may think you don’t need to write well because you’ll have access to secretaries who can polish away any blemishes in your writing. However, secretaries are an increasing rarity in modern businesses, being replaced by administrative assistants who function as office managers. These vital and well-trained employees have time to spend neither on editing and revising the hundreds of messages leaving the office every day nor on assisting weak readers with research. You are on your own. You need to be able to assess each communicative situation, choose the appropriate information to include, decide on an organizational pattern, and select the language and sentence structures that fit the situation.

It is vital to be aware of how English functions on a register continuum. Register dictates the level of formality in language and structure as well as the importance of format conventions and organizational patterns and the degree of critical thinking that is required by a message; the choice of register is determined by the relationship between the writer and the reader or audience.

In a spoken message, where the meaning of the message is aided by vocal qualities and body language, there tend to be fewer distinct register divisions, but an effective spoken message also needs to fit the audience and the speaker’s purpose. In a written message, register is broadly divided into:

  • Very informal. Text messages Facebook comments and notes left for family or friends fit here. Grammar is not a major concern and the writer is likely to omit a subject or verb knowing that the reader can fill in the blanks. Messages are generally quite short with little or no concern for organization. Abbreviations and slang are common.
  • Informal. When the writing is nearer very informal, this section includes letters to friends and family with ideas mainly flowing from a stream-of-consciousness. At the near neutral end, messages may include short emails or memos to colleagues and personal opinion articles or blogs which are relatively organized. Throughout this informal spectrum, messages use informal language such as multi-word verbs, idioms and some commonly used slang. Sentences tend to be short and simple in structure but grammatically correct, and first and second person are used freely with support for an opinion depending on – “Everybody knows that…”.
  • Neutral. Most business messages fall into this register field (reports are usually formal) and articles in more serious periodicals are also mainly neutral. A neutral message needs to walk a fine line between being friendly, warm and personal and being very clear, concise and specific. Careful organization and adequate planning is essential and writers need to adhere closely to format conventions. Additionally, messages are often read by people whose first language is not English and/or who have a different cultural context in this day of a global economy. Consequently, writers must avoid idioms, vague words or phrasal verbs, jargon and slang, as well as humor which doesn’t travel well. Sentences are usually quite short but may have more than one clause joined by conjunctions or transition expressions to smooth the flow of the message. Errors in grammar or mechanics are not acceptable. Careful thought about document design is also necessary to increase readability. Writers use first and second person pronouns and verbs are mainly active.
  • Formal. This register is the home of most business and academic reports as well as all research essays for academic classes. Adequate pre-planning and organization is vital here as these are usually longer documents and prone to loss of control. The tone of a formal document is impersonal, omitting any first or second person pronouns, so writers use passive constructions more frequently. Arguments must be supported with balanced references to the ideas of previous writers, and these need to be correctly cited. Longer, more complex sentences are usual, so transitions are needed to show connections between ideas. The language used for formal writing needs to be chosen for accuracy and appropriateness (see the Academic Word List for a list of the 550 most common words used in an academic environment). A formal document needs to be carefully revised and edited to omit any errors, so a writer will need to schedule for this as well.
  • Very formal. This type of message is quite rare. Few people speak in very formal English (with the exception of the Queen) and it tends to be a register reserved for legal documents. If a writer of a formal document moves into the language and style of this register, it usually sounds stuffy and pompous to the reader.

What makes your English good enough, then, is first the ability to accurately analyze the purpose and audience for the message and, on the basis of the analysis, choose the register appropriate to the needs of this communicative situation.  Then, the writer or speaker needs to be able to efficiently and accurately produce the kind of message that will accomplish their purpose.

Developing strong writing skills across such a range of styles is not a simple task, and most writers continue polishing and improving their skills throughout their lives. One helpful tool is certainly to read regularly and across a range of writing genres, not only for enjoyment and the acquisition of knowledge but also for the deliberate purpose of identifying effective passages of writing and analyzing what makes these effective. You also need to write regularly. You could start with a daily journal entry, and move on to publishing articles in a local magazine or blog post. You’re right, it’s not easy, but it’s your dream at stake here. Go out and get it!