Never have I been so gleeful and yet so disturbed to read something as I was today. (Okay, the glee stems only from the services I offer as The Polished Paragraph.) Anyway, earlier this month, Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger wrote the following article, “This Embarrasses You and I.*” Perhaps you can glean the drift of what she was trying to say from the title. If not, here’s the subtitle: “Grammar Gaffes Invade the Office in an Age of Informal Email, Texting and Twitter.” I bet you get it now.
The Society for Human Resource Management and AARP conducted a survey and found that 45% out of 430 employers indicated that they were increasing employee training – in grammar and other skills. Most respondants believe that the increasing illiteracy in our own language is due to young people and their lack of proficiency in the areas of grammar and spelling. Slang, shortcuts, and informality reign in texting, Twitter, and Facebook, and they’ve crossed over from those “dark sides.” In other words, employees are writing at work the same way they talk to their friends online. “Tamara Erikson, an author and consultant on generational issues, says the problem isn’t a lack of skills among 20- and 30- somethings. Accustomed to texting and social networking, ‘they’ve developed a new norm…’”
Sorry, but I just don’t buy that. For one thing, my now teenaged daughter’s grammar school decided when she was in fifth grade to do away with spelling tests because – wait for it – they were causing too much angst among the kids. Okay, that was true, and we parents were similarly angst-ridden. I don’t know who designs spelling lessons these days, but there’s little of the repetition that I experienced in elementary school. For example, if we were learning to spell NEIGHBOR, we also learned to spell WEIGH. Yep, this comes close to being phonics, and who’s heard that word in decades? All I know is that today I can spell.
I also had a kick-ass English teacher in high school, Ms. Diane Minardo, who mercilessly beat the rules into our heads. At 48, I still possess grammar skills. I can’t say the same for all high school students today. My child’s teachers and guidance counselors tell me about the inadequacies they see. Moreover, as The Polished Paragraph I edit and proofread seniors’ college application essays. The proof is in their paragraphs; it’s the reason their parents hire me.
The point of Shellenbarger’s article and the call to action by employers is that employees’ gaffes and “such looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials, and cause communications errors…” If I were an employer trying to sell or otherwise communicate with the public, I’d have a problem if one of my workers put out the following: “XYZ Corporation increased revenue and, as a result, gave their employees bonuses.” What if that’s followed up with: When the lab generated the data, they gave it to the consultant and I”?
In creative writing we’re encouraged to know the rules, so we can break the rules smartly. Perhaps employers wouldn’t be so hung up if the people they’re hiring used the shorthand of Twitter and Facebook when they were online and more standardized or proper English when composing work-related documents. The same thing goes for teens writing essays. After all, they’re the employees of tomorrow.
As Shellenbarger ends her article: “‘Twenty-five years ago it was impossible to put your hands on something that hadn’t been professionally copy-edited,” Mr. Garner [Bryan Garner, author and president of LawProse, a training and consulting firm] says. ‘Today, it is actually hard to put your hands on something that has been professionally copy-edited.’”
Few companies have copywriters, so almost everyone’s writing is on display to someone.
Do you see these kids of errors in your line of work?
Weigh in on teens’ writing, the English education they receive.
Note: All quotes were pulled directly out of Shellenbarger’s article. The complete article can be found on the Wall Street Journal’s website.