Mark Powell considers the implications of prohibiting unhelpful phrases in a tactical game of teaching taboo.

I read with interest the other day the story of the Siberian mayor who has officially banned his staff from saying ‘I don’t know’, ‘I can’t’, ‘It’s not my job’ and ‘It’s impossible’ in a desperate attempt to improve efficiency. So much as whisper ‘It’s not my fault. I was on my lunch hour’ and you’re out the door before you can say Solzhenitsyn.

This got me thinking about whether, in the interests of international business, we teachers, instead of burdening our students with useful phrases, should simply prohibit unhelpful ones.

To a certain extent, this is what the public speaking club Toastmasters does when it marks members down for every um, er, like and you know they utter. Ban the verbal chewing gum and you get perfect delivery. As presentations expert Timothy J. Kogel puts it, did Martin Luther King ‘have um, you know, like a dream’? He did not.

Diplomats have long eschewed the most honest verb in the lexicon, ‘is’, preferring to suggest that their opposite number’s proposal ‘would’, ‘could’ or ‘just might be a problem’.

And imagine how easy it would be to clinch negotiations if ‘getting to yes’ was merely a matter of banning ‘no’. There are many alternatives that can be used in its place: ‘Not really’, ‘Not exactly’, ‘Not as far as we know’

According to Sir Elton John, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. But for the British, at least, it appears to be one of the easiest, contributing to our wishy-washy reputation. Ban it and we might just earn some respect.

Would this be linguistic censorship or a harmless game of Taboo? I don’t know. Whoops! I’m not supposed to say that.