The Business of Good Grammar: Dealmaker or Dealbreaker?

Knowing how to write a proper sentence is a critical business skill.

You own a struggling young company with tons of potential. Your partner has just handed you a proposal aimed at hooking the biggest fish in your industry. Land this account and your financial woes are over. As you look over the document, spiral bound and printed on crisp linen paper, you zero in on a sentence in the last paragraph. Your partner has written: “Either Mr. Keller or Ms. Graham are available at all times.” Is that correct? you wonder. Should it be “is available” instead?* Though you consider yourself fairly literate, you admit that you are stumped by the finer points of grammar. With so much at stake, shouldn’t you be 100 percent certain that your subjects and verbs agree?

Absolutely! Like it or not, grammar is a yardstick with which people measure intelligence and competence. If you can’t write a proper sentence, that potential client may well assume that you aren’t smart, sophisticated, or detail-oriented enough to do business with him. Grammar matters. In fact, a solid mastery of the rules is becoming the skill to have in the 21st century business world.

*The sentence should read “Either Mr. Keller or Ms. Graham is available at all times.”

Why are so many businesses finding it necessary to train or refresh their employees in the proper use of grammar? There are several reasons:

  • Some schools don’t do a great job of teaching grammar. We’re not trying to bash our education system. Many schools, both public and private, do a fantastic job. But other schools today face unprecedented pressures and challenges—economic, political, and sociological in nature—and teachers can’t work miracles. The result is that many young people come out of high school, and even college, without a firm grasp of the rules of grammar. Obviously, that shortcoming reveals itself in the work force.
  • Globalization and an increasingly diverse population mix are muddying the grammatical waters. As various cultures come together and influence each other—via outsourcing and immigration, for instance—the clear-cut rules that govern language tend to get lost. We are influenced by our friends, our classmates, our coworkers. When different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds blend at work, our language patterns are influenced. Of course, this is nothing new. Like all languages, English is always evolving. It’s just that in today’s world the changes are happening so rapidly that it becomes harder to distinguish the rules of grammar from common usage. The inevitable result? Confusion.
  • The Internet Age has confused the issue even further. Smart phones, direct messages, and e-mail have changed the way we think about the rules of grammar and punctuation. It would not be at all unusual to receive the following “text message” on your phone: “im going 2 da office 4 a mtg.” Now, imagine receiving that message (scrawled, perhaps, on a “While you were out” message pad) twenty years ago. You would have branded the writer a dunce! Many of today’s young people are so accustomed to seeing this kind of technological shorthand that it seems “right” to them. It’s fast; it’s informal; it’s hip. The fact that it’s a grammatical trainwreck doesn’t bother them. But it might irritate the heck out of an old-school CEO. And when you regularly neglect the rules of grammar, it’s not so easy to switch into “old-school CEO mode.” In truth, you may not know how.
  • Our super-competitive business world means that, more than ever, image counts. Globalization and technological advances mean that the whole world has become our marketplace. That’s exciting. But it also means the whole world has become our competition —and that’s more than a little scary. When you know that hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors are out there waiting to grab your customers, it tends to keep you on your toes. You want to appear smart, polished, professional. And that’s where good grammar comes in. No manager wants a junior-level assistant sending out faxes or e-mails in which she confuses “its” and “it’s” or uses “who” when she means “whom.” When it happens enough, it begins to wear away at your corporate image.

Okay, it’s unlikely that a business letter with a comma in the wrong place or ad copy that confuses “affect” and “effect” will sink your company. But such errors might keep you from winning that Fortune 500 client you’re wooing. In short, poor grammar among the rank and file keeps you from being all that you can be.

Any employee working in a sales or customer relations capacity must have a good handle on grammar. These people are the face of your company. You wouldn’t let an employee attend a high-level meeting in a stained T-shirt or ripped jeans. Letting him or her send written communication—be it a letter, an e-mail, or a proposal—with improper grammar is just as much a business faux pas. Wrong is wrong. And you want your company always to be right.

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