In a recent episode of Have I Got News For You, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop pointed out a split infinitive. Some people laughed, many didn’t – perhaps they didn’t know what one was – and his opposite number Paul Merton made a comment (deliberately sarcastic, of course) along the lines of how good it was to see Hislop focusing on something that was so incredibly important.
Indeed, split infinitives – ie putting a word in between ‘to’ and the active part of the verb, as in the classic ‘to boldly go’ from the Star Trek TV show – are not something that would, or should, keep most people awake at night. In modern usage, phrases such as ‘I like to quietly contemplate the day’ would not be seen as wrong since the grammatically correct ‘I like to contemplate the day quietly’ seems almost just as awkward.
So it’s acceptable to bend the rules occasionally and not be so hung up about whether you are using the pluperfect tense or should be using the conditional perfect progressive tense. The English language is extremely flexible and is evolving every day. Only the other week we heard that the Oxford Dictionary had accepted ‘dad bod’, ‘gunna’ and ‘half-ass’ as genuine English phrases.
Bending the grammar rules
But will we get to the stage where mis-spellings become so common that they are accepted as the norm? Will there come a day when ‘I could of’ or ‘I use to be’ become acceptable? Already, many people are turning a blind eye to such mistakes and because they go uncorrected it means they get repeated.
Without trying to pin the blame on any one party, there was a period in English education when it was thought that pupils’ creativity was being stifled by teachers regularly correcting their work. Don’t worry too much about spelling and punctuation, the instruction came from on high, it’s far more important to look at the content and what the pupil is trying to say. That would have been fine if the education system had created millions of creative people who would later learn how to spell – but that never happened.
What did happen is that a whole generation of people left school and/or college not just unable to spell or use words properly but with the idea firmly planted in their heads that it didn’t matter. It isn’t unusual these days to hear someone who is challenged about their spelling to respond with “Well that’s how I spell it,” with the emphasis on “I”. There is now a firmly held belief that “should of” is what it sounds like so that’s how it will be written and that it’s perfectly acceptable to go to “collage” to further your education.
Indeed, there is a growing body of people who believe that how you write or spell anything doesn’t really matter anymore. To these folk, the proof-reader is redundant and the person pointing out the correct way is a “grammar Nazi”. But will this view prevail and become the norm? Or are we going to get two tiers where one cares about punctuation and grammar and the other considers these issues to be utterly meaningless and completely unworthy of a moment’s thought? That is a distinct possibility.
Certainly in business, getting things right in terms of spelling has always been seen to be important. But there are many chief executives and directors out there who continually produce reports or e-mails that are littered with errors (and woe betide the member of staff who dares to point this out!). And there are countless online news items and pieces published by the likes of the respected BBC or The Daily Telegraph that contain errors that are obviously not typos (typographical errors) but are how the writer believes the words should be written.
So does it seem inevitable that at some stage there will be business reports choc-a-bloc with mistakes, news stories that regularly get things wrong, MDs sending out missives that are appallingly written and punctuated… and hardly anybody notices? Hopefully not. Just when you are losing faith and you feel you are the sole arbiter when it comes to proper spelling and grammar, a senior figure emerges who has a passion for accuracy or a radio programme appears where everyone agrees that the English language cannot be destroyed in this way.
In business at least, we know that it’s wrong to think that doing things incorrectly will be okay. Quality is the one factor that will always attract or drive away customers, depending on whether it’s good or bad. Yes, price is important but nobody in business wants to save money and get an inferior service. That really is the ultimate false economy.
So it’s time for companies to accept that quality should run through their entire organisation – from the appearance of the front lobby through how the phones are answered to standards of communication. Businesses are judged on the quality of their office furniture and even their coffee, so don’t think that the quality of your written work isn’t at least equally important.
You could do a lot worse than make time for looking at the standard of English that is being used in your company’s written communications. It certainly won’t be wasted time and it really could make the difference in the long run between winning an order or losing a client. Check the reports that you receive, check the e-mails that are sent out to clients and if you see something that makes you wince, do something about it.
It may be that you don’t know where to start but there are organisations who can help you. They will come in – and it is often more palatable if it is an external source – and train your staff on the importance of using the correct language, spelling, punctuation and grammar. The idea is not to make people feel that they are being criticised but to make them feel they are being supported and developed into better employees who are learning key skills that will help their careers in the future.
So don’t worry, the English language isn’t going to hell in a handcart and your workers are not a lost cause when it comes to their communications skills. You no longer need to hold your head in your hands in despair at the quality of the written word that your business generates and sends out to the wider world. There are people out there who recognise the importance of getting everything right wherever possible and who know the damage that can be done to a company’s reputation when this doesn’t happen.
If you get what you write right, you’ll be amazed at the difference this can make to your company’s standing in the marketplace, to the contentment and efficiency of your staff and, yes, to the business’s bottom line.
If you want help writing right contact us at Changeworks Communications.