Theo Coggin

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#language keeps up with the masters

hashtag #language beethoven sharp

Language evolves; sometimes its meaning changes. Beethoven, one of the greatest composers of all time, would be astonished!

By Theo Coggin

Mature languages like English readily integrate new words into their lexicon. Contemporary words, coming from other languages as well as technology, have enriched our language. In the case of the latter, a word like “wireless” (not so long ago referring to a radio) went “to sleep” for a while, but has resurfaced as an integral part of our everyday vocabulary. On a lighter note – pun intended 🙂 – the hashtag, familiar to musicians and composers (like master composer Beethoven) as a “sharp”, is now also part of many modern day vivid descriptions that we use without thinking twice.

Delicious typos and predictive text… Both can be mouthwatering

oie_transparent (13)I am sure typos and predictive text have caused us all a mixture of irritation and embarrassment from time to time. But they can also bring with them mirth and a welcome chuckle.

Whether this case in point which has so amused me today was in fact a typo – or just predictive text – I don’t know. But it was delightful.

Blissfully devoid of television during a sojourn in the mountains, I resorted to online cricket commentary from The Guardian’s Tim de Lisle. My immediate concern was the state of play in the cricket test match at the Oval in London between South Africa and England, and so I missed Tim’s commentary on the third over, watching as I was only for the score. That, in itself, is a lesson in how often we blissfully read over mistakes. But the sharp eye of an unseen follower, somewhere else in the world, Bob O’Hara, picked it up and sent a tweet which said: “Please don’t correct your typo in over 3. The image it gives of international diplomacy is one to savour. @Cricket_Germany”.

That piqued my interest, big time! So I scrolled to the third over to read Tim’s description about Morkel, the South African bowler. It read: “Cook goes forward to cover-drive Morkel for four, then back to tuck him for four more. Textbook stuff. Merkel retorts with a shorter ball, in at the groin; if it hurts, Cook isn’t going to show it…”

Merkel? She of Germany and European Union fame? As Mr O’Hara suggests, the image – and as I would suggest, consequence! – of international diplomacy gets the imagination going. In some cases in which politicians are over-sensitive, such a matter might evoke many varied results.

But a more delicious and captivating typo is hard to imagine.

oie_transparent (14)The lesson for us as communicators: always proofread before publishing!

  • I can’t end this blog without paying tribute to the brilliant way in which Tim de Lisle provides his commentary. It reminds me of the South African radio cricket commentator, the late Charles Fortune, who had a brilliant command of English and a canny ability to take one, unsighted, on to the field of play.
  • Tim’s typo has already led to some witty comments via Twitter, for example, this one from Brian Withington. “Liking the emerging theme of international cricket diplomacy started with your 6th-over reference to the German Chancellor’s mean bowling. One or two others spring to mind – captain May guilty of an overly optimistic early declaration; and that living advert for a political DRS, one Donald Trump (mystery spinner and flat-track bully).”

The “Fifth Estate” – A brave new world?

fifth-estateJournalism as we know it, or as I as a self-confessed news junkie have known and loved it, died when Donald Trump became President-Elect of the USA. We see this new phenomenon of what is overtaking the Fourth Estate unfolding daily. Will it become known as the Fifth Estate?

Donald Trump and his cronies know they don’t need the New York Times, CNN, or any of the major news agencies that have influenced us for decades. A new road has opened up. Trump realises that with the power of social media, he can tell the Fourth Estate to get screwed – and is doing so, and telling us at will as he Tweets, in no uncertain terms.

With the power of social media, he can and does choose his own time, his own media, his own way of getting his message out, without having to kowtow to the whims and fancies of a press corps baiting him at the White House or anywhere else.

Twitter has been his most obvious form of social media communication, and highly successful it has been. (The fear of his incoming defence and security chiefs must surely be that he will tweet their attack strategies before they are launched!) Much to the anguished cries of mainline journalism that he is not giving them their due, he populates his Twitter account with the messages he wants to go out. He edits them; they’re in the words he wants to use and portray the image of himself that he wishes. Screw the interpretations of mainline journalists, no matter how much time they have spent or how well they did at the likes of Columbia’s School of Journalism.

Some of these journalists are brilliant. They have outstanding minds. But I have to tell them that Trump and his legion of social media advisors know how to use 21st century platforms to bypass them and their frequently preconceived interpretations of the President-Elect. The irritation of the journalists, some of them hardened and vastly experienced anchor men and women, is obvious.

I don’t like what’s happening. But happening it is.

So Twitter, YouTube, Facebook…. you name them. Donald Trump has reinvented the way Presidents of the United States will forever – certainly until I depart this mortal coil – communicate with their publics.

Resurrect yourselves fast, old-time journalists, or face extinction. The brave new world of social media is already way ahead of you as it lends itself to the whims and fancies of the politicians of this century. This in an age when we should be extremely wary of the unfettered use of this media. But more of that in another blog….

Refugee blues in 2016

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, "They must die":
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me. - WH Auden


I heard this poem read at a Christmas Carol concert this past Sunday. By W H Auden, I had not heard Refugee Blues for many a year.


And then, last night, I watched another appalling “episode” of the refugee crisis stalking our world. It is 2016; almost 2017. Christmas with its own story of the refugee child, Jesus, is around the corner, and all the shopping malls of the cities scream at us again… and again, and again.

And the refugee story remains as apt as 2000 years ago. The difference is that this year, last year, next year… well, the difference is that story simply invades our comfortable living rooms via TV and social media.

I find it good to read again these words written in 1939 just before World War II when thousands of Jews were starting their flight from Germany and newsreels told the story. I find it instructive to read as contemporary media floods our homes, when it deems it newsworthy, of stories of people bloodied and bruised by the big Herods of the modern world, running away from their homes. It is as stark and eerie as the story of that little Jewish family that ran from Bethlehem so long ago.

We just never learn to accept everyone as we wish ourselves to be loved.


Has vulgar grammar become the norm?

There have been many takes on the phrase “English as she is spoke”, the title of a book written by José da Fonseca  and Pedro Carolinho, first published in 1855. In his introduction to the US edition,  Mark Twain penned these thoughtful words:

“Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure.”

These words in this book with its memorable title have occupied my mind over the past two days as I read what can only be described as vulgar grammar, first in a tender document published by National Treasury and second in an article published by the huge media group, News24.

Perhaps the poor language in the tender document can be excused since it might not have been written by someone who earns his or her living from the craft of communicating English in an understandable way. Others will argue, of course, that a tender document should be crystal clear to avoid misunderstanding and ensure correct submissions.

It is the article published by News24 – a commentary by a contributor on the Economist Chris Hart’s recent tweets which have been interpreted as racist – that troubled me most. News24, after all, as a purveyor of news should be expected to edit articles it publishes so that they appear in a pristine form.

The article in question is pock-marked with vulgar grammar, making some of the sentences incomprehensible. A quick scan revealed more than two dozen grammatical and/or editorial glitches. The first few words of the article illustrate the point: “Firstly let me place on record that Chris Hart’s were problematic…”.

Chris Hart’s what? If one was following the debate one might subliminally insert the missing word, “tweet” or “views”, as one reads. But if one were not doing so one would simply shake one’s head in disgust at such an obvious omission, such a wilful neglect to proofread, such inept writing, and turn to a rival publication.

The problem is this is not an exception. One regularly sees examples of such abysmal writing in magazines and newspapers published in South Africa, and hear the same errors on news bulletins on radio and television.

It is inexcusable.

No wonder then that so many of those who come to the courses which Quo Vadis Communications offer also look at one with amazement when one speaks of getting one’s grammar correct. These are usually people who head or work in communication departments in corporates, government, and NGOs.

The good news is one is able to address these issues – very often simply by teaching people the discipline involved in writing.

But people also need to be open to learn about the importance of grammar, proofreading and editing. Unfortunately, many aren’t. Only when mindsets change, will our standard of communication in South Africa improve.

2016 Schedule of courses for Quo Vadis Communications

The digital world which influences our lives today has no bounds

socialmediatodayNot only do its technological tentacles impact on our daily lives in matters as common place as our existing utility and bank accounts, but its nature is such that it can mine and store information and statements we made in the past and that were long forgotten.

This was brought home to me with great force when my son recently sent me something he had found in doing research into the rejuvenation of South African cities. But it was what he found about work I was doing in the 1970s, while in Durban, that astonished me.

At the time I was heavily involved in working through an organisation committed to the demise of apartheid. I was regularly quoted in the media in those days, and various foreign embassies and consulates-general also used my briefings to them in their reports back to their governments. I had, however, long forgotten about the detail of those days. Apartheid has come and gone, and we live and work now in a new socio-political milieu. Well, so I thought until my son’s email arrived.

Did I know, he asked, that something I had said in 1976 was now part of the (sensitive) Wikileaks portfolio that had been hacked from US government files and posted on the internet?   For good measure he sent me the link to the document, which turned out to be related to some political activity in which I was involved in that seminal year in South Africa. I cannot even remember what it was all about. Almost 40 years ago is, after all, a long time.

Why do I relate this incident?  Quite simply because it is an illustration that information about one, or things we had done and said, many years ago, and which we have forgotten, are still very much alive, thanks to social media. And it’s not that we intended them necessarily to be remembered when we penned or said these words!

In my case, I was not even aware, necessarily, that the apparent words of wisdom I had sprouted to some forgotten US Consul-General, would be reported – and certainly not given the remotest thought to the possibility that they would be stored and retrievable through cyberspace four decades later.

In my work these days I emphasise the seemingly lasting nature of social media. But it seems even more lasting than even I imagined. The implication is that we should be highly responsible in what we communicate via social media.  The Information Age means that communication is now more dynamic than ever.  Staid, snail pace communication of the 1970s has  caught up with it – and the accessibility of information is more pervasive than ever.

Worth bearing in mind that nothing we write or utter is ever private.

Genuine forms of communication are key during times of grief

GrievingCommunicating in a time of grief is the most challenging of all.

It doesn’t matter whether you actually practice the craft of communication or are just a manager or a colleague, you will face this one day.

Grief isn’t always just about death. It can be about divorce, broken relationships,a  loss of a job etc.

There are some communicators specifically trained to do so. They are found amongst the ranks of the clergy of different faiths and specialist councillors. My research amongst them, however, suggests that not all of them cope with this most onerous form of communication as well as they should. That is not a criticism but an observation for this is a difficult issue.

Others who find themselves in a position of having to speak or write to those in a position of grief are managers in any organisation. Unlike clergy or trained councillors they have not necessarily received specific training on the subject.

Expressions of sympathy in the time honoured format of extending their condolences is usually the manner in which it is dismissed in the corporate world.

How then to do it? There is no easy answer for grief lingers long after the event.

Sensitivity is key. Respecting the wishes of the person grieving similarly so. Sitting with them, holding hands, hugging and other tactile expressions, if appropriate, also.

But, in my experience, being “available” – whatever the time, whatever the circumstance – is a prerequisite.

Just be there. And let the person or persons grieving know that you are genuine for your love for them.

Social Media: not for faint-hearted executives!

Social media has exploded. Without question it is now the most influential medium in institutions as divergent as politics, business, the non profit sector, security industry (and its nemeses, crime), health and religion. In North Africa governments have fallen as a result of social media.

In August 2011, they were the means by which gangs of criminally minded young people in England sped from one assembly point to the next as they indiscriminately looted shops and businesses and generally caused mayhem.

ostrich with head in sandNow, entities in the various institutions mentioned above have woken up to the fact – some are still coming out of their slumbers – that the likes of Facebook and Twitter, to mention two of the best-known, are incredibly powerful communication tools. With the realisation that the chief executive or his or her trusted lackey are not the best persons to have the responsibility of using these powerful tools has come the rush to appoint people to do so. Alas! In many cases no strategic planning has preceded this thinking, and so there are often no plans in place to handle this in a manner which is productive, professional and secure.

In my experience, there are still too many instances in which one sits around a boardroom table with executive decision makers baulking at the idea of paying a decent fee or salary to get their social media proficiently handled.

“Let’s employ an intern to handle it. Or a retired person to give a couple of hours a day. Or maybe Mary at reception can deal with it in her quiet moments.” How silly these executives are in such thinking.

These cheapskate solutions offer no solution at all. What they do is to demean and devalue the power of social media and to oops
misunderstand its dynamic nature.

Social media has a life all of its own and, unless professionally handled, your message can become destructive and destroy your reputation with a press of a button – a press of many buttons as people re-Tweet and re-post badly constructed messages. Or worse, the person monitoring your social media is inept at recognising what is damaging and therefore fails to deal with negative comments from outside sources.

I have always argued that communication is basic to anything any organisation does. This is no less true of social media.

Style is not fashion

TwiggyUnlike the concept of style in clothing, which changes at the whim of a celebrity such as Twiggy (remember her?) donning a skirt barely below her derrière (we have italicised it as our style is to do so when using foreign words), style in writing is critical. Yet few writers, and even fewer organisations, seem to give a hoot.

With increasing regularity, I am presented with documents, all intended for public consumption, which will use full stops, commas and other punctuation marks inconsistently; capitals similarly so; the use of ‘s’ and ‘z’ with gay abandon in the same word (eg criticise and criticize) and so on.

A sloppy stylistic practice serves simply to illustrate a writer’s laziness, ineptitude and an organisation’s lack of professionalism.

No organisation worth its salt should be without a style manual. The great newspapers and news magazines of the world, reputable publishing houses (and here I do not refer to vanity publishers which increasingly satisfy the egocentric trips for those who cannot get published elsewhere and are therefore guilty of stylistic applications that are sometimes laughable) all have style manuals which are updated regularly and applied religiously.

Style manuals apply to rules of grammar, spelling, idiomatic expression, the use of capitals, the way in which one writes figures, brand names, and the company’s own name. In South Africa, for example, the government’s department of Trade and Industry has a somewhat quaint style of writing its acronym as ‘the dti’. It is a pain to implement, but it builds a brand name of what is otherwise a controversial government entity.

Stylistic inconsistencies in any document serve only to impede a reader’s progress and negatively impact on the author’s credibility.

For organisations such as Quo Vadis Communication, for which I work, this means using a number of style books for different clients. It is sometimes time-consuming and even confusing. It is, however, critical because the image the organisation wishes to present is one of consistency and professionalism.

Writers similarly should adopt a consistent style and create a style book. If your business or organisation does not have a style manual, contact a reputable organisation to assist you in producing one.

It will immeasurable enhance the way in which you and your organisation communicate.

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