'Matter of Laugh or Death,' the award-winning humor column
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
(appearing each week in the Republican-American newspaper, Waterbury, CT)
BUSINESS WRITING PRIMER
An amazing transformation has occurred in the workplace during the past decade. Email messages have replaced business letters as the primary means of communicating. The positions of stenographer and secretary have been all but eliminated. (These employees are now called “officer managers,” which means instead of taking dictation and typing business letters, their main duties are devoted to much more important tasks, such as calling the company’s computer consultant every other day because the email server crashed again.)
This email revolution means most corporate executives, including some CEOs, now compose and type their own business correspondence. And it proves one thing: most corporate executives, including all CEOs, got D-minuses in Mrs. McGillicuddy’s 6th grade English composition class.
Some of the flagrant spelling and grammatical errors pouring forth from the keyboards of otherwise competent business leaders—and the total lack of communication which results—makes one wonder how anything ever gets accomplished in corporate America these days.
Since you never get a second chance to make a bad first impression, I’d like to offer a few business writing tips, to help avoid the two most common pitfalls: (1) poor communication, and (2) having your inter-office emails generate more excitement than the NCAA basketball tournament because workers have set up office pools to bet on how many grammatical blunders can be found in your messages.
Homonyms are a big problem. (If you’re not quite sure, this refers to words which sound the same but are spelled differently, not the company’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.) The two most common are: their, they’re, and there; and your and you’re.
Their is possessive, such as, “Their software always crashes.” They’re is a contraction of they are, such as, “They’re driving me nuts.” And there indicates a place or direction, such as (while pointing to an open window and the tangle of smoldering plastic and glass in the parking lot below), “My computer is down there—and I feel much better now.”
Your is possessive, such as, “Your job performance is atrocious, Phil.” You’re is a contraction of you are, such as, “Therefore, you’re fired.”
Some people use words which don’t even exist. Irregardless of what you’ve heard in the past, irregardless is not a real word.
Some people are way too wordy in their emails. The fewer words you use to make your point, the clearer the communication.
Incorrect: “Due to the current economic climate and the resulting downturn in sales and profits, it has become necessary to reduce certain departmental budgetary expenditures.”
Correct: “Phil, you’re fired.”
Never type using all lowercase letters. Although this technique is commonplace in Internet chat rooms, unless your name is e.e. cummings, it is unprofessional in a business environment. It indicates you are too lazy to hit the shift keys with your pinkies every once in a while, and as a recent Wall Street Journal survey discovered, most people are uncomfortable doing business with someone with lazy pinkies.
Never type using all uppercase letters. This comes across as shouting. (Uppercase letters are acceptable, of course, if you really want to shout, such as, “PHIL, YOU BONEHEAD! YOU’RE FIRED!”)
Make sure your nouns and verbs match regarding tense and singular/plural. And if you’re not quite sure what nouns and verbs is, you should found someone in the office who does knew.
Never use cute or trendy lingo (for example, replacing the word language with “lingo”). The only thing worse than a middle-aged executive saying, “Hey dude,” is a middle-aged executive writing in an email, “Hey dude.” (And since most middle-aged executives can’t type worth a lick, it usually comes out, “Hy dud.”)
Good writing skills are very important in the business world. Being able to communicate effectively and correctly tells everyone that you are knowledgeable and attentive to detail. Also, if your name is Phil and you’ve just been canned because you possess no other competent business skills, you will be able to write a really impressive resume.
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