Call Me “Curmudgeon”

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By John Lonsdorf, President, R&J Public Relations

Occasionally, the former middle school English teacher in me comes out.  I can’t help it; it was my first career choice, way back when Jimmy Carter was President, and before I got myself into this crazy business.  Now as the owner of a PR agency, I no longer teach people how to diagram a sentence (yes, one early teaching assignment actually required that ancient skill; I think they study it now in archeology class, right after cave drawings).  Sometimes, though, my current public relations gig takes me back to those days – it usually happens as I read or hear some boneheaded use of the language.  It’s especially disturbing when it’s by one of my employees.

Let me stipulate right up front I have a very well-educated, extremely intelligent and capable staff of PR professionals.  These qualities enable them to do great work and to make a real difference for our clients.   But sometimes, something that I read or hear causes my inner English teacher to wince.

For a long time I resisted the urge to correct my employees’ incorrect usage or awkward syntax.  I’m not really sure if it was because I didn’t want to risk embarrassing them, or if I didn’t want to seem pedantic; most likely it was a combination of the two.  But more and more, I find that I am not as reluctant to don the old professor’s mortarboard and explain some of the intricacies and vagaries of the mother tongue.

I’d love to say that I had a sudden “Paul on the road to Damascus” conversion on this, but the truth is that my position on correcting employees’ grammar evolved over time.  There was, however, one thing that I read that solidified my resolve in the matter.

I was reading an industry-specific blog post encouraging others to blog (the author and blog shall go unnamed since they are immaterial to my point), and I encountered THIS cringe-worthy gem:

“Some of our favorite blogs couldn’t pass a basic English course, and that’s a good thing.  Sentence structure DOESNT MATTER. [sic]

It made my blood boil.  I couldn’t possibly disagree more.  And I actually went back and re-read it three times to see if I was missing something in either the meaning, the gratuitous capital letters or the absent apostrophe.

Yes, content is king.  But the plain fact is, your use of language and the breadth of your vocabulary is a reflection of your competence.  You may have a truly enlightening point, but if it’s delivered badly, with questionable grammar and syntax, it is likely to be dismissed.

And a corollary to that is, of course, how my employees speak and write reflects directly on me, my agency, and our clients.  Or, as Jeffrey Gittomer put it, “Your grammar is a reflection of your image. Good or bad, you have made an impression. And like all impressions, you are in total control.”

We work really hard to develop and execute the proper strategies and tactics to “move the needle” for our clients.  But even a single grammar slip-up in a presentation to a client, or in the roll-out materials to the intended audience – a pitch letter, a press release, etc. – can quickly diminish the effectiveness of our efforts.

So I correct (but never publicly!), suggest alternatives, and explain what must seem like the arcane minutia of antecedenal relationships to relative pronouns, hoping that the advice is taken in the best possible way by employees who, in fairness, might not have been taught these rules in school (and who I am willing to wager never had to diagram a sentence).

And at the same time I tell them that it’s often OK to break some “hard and fast” rules for the sake of clarity or effect – like that silly rule about never, ever beginning a sentence with “and” – as long as their meaning and intent are clear. I tell them that good writers are also good readers, and urge them to make it a point to read well-written prose in novels and in respected publications like the New York Times or TIME Magazine, to help them to cultivate an appreciation for language.  I encourage them to ask colleagues to proofread their material and to explain corrections and suggestions to them.

Hopefully they take my wise, old-man counsel in the spirit that it is intended, as they call me “curmudgeon” (or worse) behind my back.

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