(MoneyWatch) A lot of folks are up in arms over bad grammar invading the workplace. A Wall Street Journal article notes what appears to be a growing shift toward informal writing, courtesy of email, social media, and smartphones.
Now, I've got a loyal reader who emails me whenever she catches a typo that gets past our awesome, but human, editors. When she's too busy, there are plenty of readers to back her up. So I wouldn't say that civilization is regressing to the "ugh, me hungry, me want food" stage just yet.
Nevertheless, we spend so much time emailing, texting, and tweeting these days that it's easy to get lax and write what might generously be called a colloquial style. You've got to admit, blog comments like "I jus read your article; ___. Very insteresting!" are a bit disconcerting (Yes, that is a real comment from a real reader... and keep em comin, thx!)
Unfortunately, the WSJ article is somewhat confusing and not very helpful for employees trying to figure out what is and isn't acceptable at work, these days. For one thing, it leads with an anecdote about a chief operating officer breaking into a staff meeting to correct the grammar of a senior VP. Personally, I think correcting any employee in front of others is appalling management.
It also conflates the growing informality in tweets, messages, and internal emails with typically more formal communications with customers and in public marketing content. These are different. It even gets into esoteric grammatical debates over comma use, which I find entirely irrelevant regardless of the situation.
Since anyone who wants to have a meaningful career should know how to write, I thought I'd provide some clarity on what really matters in a business environment and what you really shouldn't bother worrying about. Here are five tips on grammar in the age of social media and mobile devices:
Social media content. If what you're writing will be public and has your name attached to it, assume that anyone who works with you or might be interested in hiring you will see it. As such, whatever it is can be conversational, and a typo isn't the end of the world, but it should still be reasonably grammatically correct. Just don't go overboard. Business writing is about clarity in communication, not following obscure rules.
Internal emails, messages, and documents. Even though it's an internal document, you never know who it will be forwarded to or who's going to read it. It's your reputation. I would treat it the same way as above. Conversational is fine and, if it's an email or instant message, punctuation doesn't have to be perfect. But it shouldn't cause anyone to wince and wonder if you've graduated from high school. That said, if what you're writing is an important email or document, you're sending it to management, or you want it to be impactful, then edit with care.
Emails, letters, proposals, documents, web content -- anything that customers or people outside the company will see. It should be grammatically correct and well-composed. Of course, spell-check and edit as appropriate. If you can't do that, then you shouldn't be writing anything for external consumption. Take a business writing class.
Bullet text exceptions. One notable exception that comes to mind is what I call "bullet text." On presentation slides, in spreadsheets, in resumes, where appropriate on your LinkedIn profile, on Twitter -- anywhere space is limited and proper grammar isn't necessarily expected -- business people often use bullets and phrases that are not complete sentences and sometimes omit articles like "the" and "a."
About training others. Managers shouldn't correct employees in front of others, verbally or in writing. It's demeaning and reflects poorly on the manager. If an employee needs help with grammar or composition, tell him one-on-one and help him find resources such as a good business writing class and the writer's bible, "The Elements of Style," by Strunk and White.
One more thing. This isn't about etiquette, being eloquent, or anything like that. This is about communicating with clarity. It's also about your career. If those things matter to you, then you need to take this stuff seriously, whatever the medium. Yes, I know the word "stuff" is, well, a bit informal. But you got the point, right? Then it's all good.
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