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Formal or informal language? What toilet signs can tell us about writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

This is the tale of two loos. Both of them at venues we use at ACM Training for our open workshops. One of them – Ort House Conference Centre in Camden – at the more traditional end of the market. The other – Waterfront Meeting Rooms in Bristol – at the funkier end. Now I’ve nothing against traditional or funky per se. But it’s funny how the signage at the two venue follows suite.

“We will endeavour to fix the issue in a timely manner,” asserts the sign from the Building & Facilities Team (their capitals) at Ort House when, in truth, the team is probably just a bloke with a spanner who doesn’t speak like that in real life – the bloke, that is, not the spanner.

By comparison the Waterfront sign is much less formal and the writer has even thought about the audience by appealing directly to younger gents (I can’t vouch whether the same sign appears in the ladies) with the “or your parents’ home” line.

Now you could argue that a sign on a toilet wall doesn’t really matter because people’s impression of the venues is based on so much more – the friendliness of the reception staff, the cleanliness of the facilities, the airiness of the training rooms. And that’s certainly true with face-to-face businesses. But what about those businesses whose customers only transact with them online in a virtual sense? Or those where the initial contact is via a website or blog? Then words really matter because, like the reception staff in this example, they are for many people the first point of contact. And first impressions matter.

So if you’re writing for websites instead of toilet signs you need to think long and hard about the most appropriate use of language. For most organisations conversational but purposeful is best. That and plain English. Have a ponder next time you visit the loo.

By the way, I have endeavoured, on behalf of ORT House, to fix the linguistic issue in a timely manner so here, for what it’s worth, is my alternative…

If it’s broke we’ll fix it. You just need to let us know.

If your website is broke (linguistically that is) we’ll help you fix it.Or, better still, we can train you to fix it yourself. Either way you just need to let us know.