Tag Archives: business English

Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Looking for a Job?

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Conventional wisdom (I use that term advisedly) has held that résumés should be no longer than one page. However, BusinessInsider.com revealed the results of a study that found two-page résumés were greatly preferred to a one-page version.

Twenty-thousand résumés were sent to almost 500 recruiters, who were asked to screen them for a simulated hiring decision. Over 7,700 résumés were approved and of those, 5,375 were two pages. In the next round of evaluations, 74% used the two-page format. The results held for both management and entry-level positions.

Take this study for what it’s worth. Padding your résumé will serve no purpose; all your information must be relevant, concise, and clear. If it takes two pages to show your skills and experience, don’t hold back. However, don’t go onto a third page. TMI.

 

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Emailing Your Boss

An article in NYMag.com by Catie L’Heureux had some good tips on how to email your boss. I don’t know how L’Heureux knows this, but she says your boss gets about 500 emails a day. Even if the total is a measly 348, your boss is going to see only the first few words of your email and will make a decision on the spot whether to reply, delete, or ignore.

A good way to get her attention is to open with a question: Could we…? Do you think…? Will you confirm…? Will you please tell me whether…? Would you consider…?

You will come across as professional and, unless your boss is a descendant of Frau Blücher, she will do what she can to accommodate you. Instead of responding, “No problem” or “Sure” if she asks for your help, try answering “Of course.” You will sound glad to help. That is likely the way you want people reporting to you to sound.

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Looking at Colons

Fear not, this is not a post about colonoscopies. Here’s how to think about the colon as a punctuation mark: (<—-that’s a colon)

Colons are like the blare of a trumpet (they say, “Ta dah! Here it comes!”). You’ve just written a sentence and you need to expand on it. The original sentence gives you a promise, and what follows the colon is used for three reasons:

  1.  to give an example   We needed only one more thing for our party: a good DJ.
  2. to introduce a quotation  My sister’s words were uplifting: “Your haircut is so good, you could be in a shampoo ad.”
  3. to introduce a list  At Trader Joe’s I bought two essential items for dinner: cheese    and wine.

That’s all, folks. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

 

 

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Singular or Plural?

I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.

• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.

• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.

Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.

But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural.  Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:

The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.

 

 

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More on Capitalization

 

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Whatever you do, DO NOT study Trump’s tweets for a lesson in capitalization. He seems to have zero idea of when to use capital letters and just does so at will, most often for emphasis. Of course, when you emphasize everything, you end up emphasizing nothing.

Here’s the deal: If you are writing the official name of something, capitalize it:

I went to Hollywood High School.   But I went to high school in Hollywood. My high school was in Hollywood.

She was born in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. But She was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. The hospital she was born in was in Philadelphia.

If the word you are using is not the official name of the thing you are citing, use lower case. In addition, the word the is rarely part of anything’s official name. It’s not The Statue of Liberty. Use lower case for the word the.

 

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Punctuation—It Matters

 

© Judi Birnberg

 

 

 

In Just My Typo, edited by Drummond Moir (gotta love his name), he cites a 19th century example of carelessness:

A New Orleans cotton broker sent a telegraph to New York, asking if he should buy cotton at the current prices. He received an answer of “No price too high.” Naturally, he bought as much as he could, only to discover that the answer should have been punctuated as follows: “No. Price too high.”

One tiny dot on paper can make a world of difference.

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