More By This Author

Current Issue

Current Issue

Posted: May 07, 2013

Say what? Keep it simple!

If I don't get it, I'll stop listening

David Sneed

Besides religion, food, language and philosophy, France and England are only divided by 20 miles of water at the Straits of Dover. Call it the Pas de Calais if you prefer: it’s the same place.

Dozens of container ships and crude oil carriers sail through this bottleneck every day, as do hundreds of car ferries, fishing boats, and yachts.  To make it more congested, sandbars limit larger vessels to only a few narrow routes north and south while the ferries zig and zag between them.

Storms and tides, as well as hidden hazards and combat in this historic stretch of sea have caused many to perish since the first primitive sailors made the crossing 8,000 years ago. But oddly, the English language itself has also played a part.

Consider a radio transmission, possibly garbled or harried, where I say:  “Switch channels immediately.” Do I mean for you to alter your course, or to change the frequency on your radio? People who study this sort of thing found times when a homonym or vague definition caused confusion which ended in tears.  Weigh, port, and fast are just a few other examples of unclarity in common nautical terms.

Imagine telling a Spanish skipper to “make fast” his ship.  And the tension mounts…will he tie it down, or speed up?

It’s only been three decades since maritime groups and governments invented Seaspeak to get mariners on the same page. And if you can believe it, the French led the crusade to make Anglaise the language of the sea.

Now called Standard Marine Communication Phrases (SMCP), this simplified—although sometimes crazily-phrased—language is required speaking for officers on all large boats. Its benefit is the complete and total lack of ambiguity.

Sailors aren’t alone in creating special, easy-to-understand language. Ask one of your friends in the building industry, and he’ll tell you they use a different form of English on HIS jobsite too: very simple ‘Construction English.’

All companies—and all managers of people, and everyone who writes for the public— should consider the reasons behind simplified communication. English is complicated; you and I define words with varying degrees of certitude. And I’ve never even heard of some of your words, let alone know what you mean by them.

Confusion takes time to sort out, assuming I even registered the unfamiliar sounds coming from your mouth. People usually just stop listening. If I don’t understand you, I’ll probably just “get the gist” and act accordingly. We don’t like letting others know Je ne comprends pas.

So when you care to make a point, if you want to be understood, keep Seaspeak in mind and prevent confusion. Write simply. Speak simply.

And I’ll close with the SMCP recommended phrase: Nothing more.

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

ColoradoBiz TV

Loading the player ...

Featured Video