The Wall Street Journal recently printed an article on grammar gaffes in the office. In it, the author states that 45 percent of the 430 employers surveyed said they were increasing training programs to “improve employees’ grammar and other skills.”
That’s a start. Now how do we get the other 55 percent to do the same? More important, how do we get the people—especially corporate communications and marketing professionals—who attend these programs to actually learn something about grammar and develop a deep enough interest in it to really make a difference in what they write and say?
The headline for the article, “This Embarrasses You and I” was, I believe, supposed to poke fun at the people who make this common mistake: It should, of course, be “You and Me.” But few people reading the headline would notice the mistake, and the article likely went unread by those most in need of learning something from it.
This mistake—incorrectly using the subjective “I” instead of the objective “me”—must be one of the most common grammatical errors made by Americans of all walks of life. In the first episode of the TV miniseries “The Hatfields & The McCoys,” which I recently watched, such mistakes were rampant, as you would expect from a program about mid-1880s poorly educated people. You also can hear this mistake on most TV shows, even “30 Rock,” about sophisticated New Yorkers, and on “Hardball,” the show anchored by Chris Mathews, a highly intelligent writer, who last week said something to the effect of, “That’s the way it makes Chuck and I feel.”
What’s really bad, though, is how often you hear and read this mistake in real life, not just on TV, made by both the newly college-educated and those who earned their degrees decades ago. I heard it from a good friend recently, who is both well educated and a writer. And I would not be far off in stating that I heard this or similar errors in most meetings I attended over a dozen years with highly educated middle and senior managers at a company where I worked. Few people around the table knew or cared that the mistake was being made.
Likewise, it’s common to see this mistake in quality publications and on their websites. In a recent article on “Inc.com,” for example, I saw this statement by a writer explaining the value of using storytelling in a small company’s marketing strategy: “The real estate agent who helped my husband and I find our apartment was a successful psychologist before becoming a real estate agent. …”
Until I read this mistake, I had felt good about the information in the article and had confidence the writer knew what she was talking about. That confidence went out the window wrapped in the phrase “helped my husband and I.” I then re-read the article, questioning much of what was said because I didn’t feel I could trust someone who would write such a phrase.
The recent Wall Street Journal article said many of the managers fighting the grammar gaffes in their offices “attribute the slipping skills to the informality of email, texting and Twitter, where slang and shortcuts are common.” Really? Do they actually think these young workers don’t know the difference between communicating with their friends and communicating with business clients and associates? Isn’t that like saying if someone were to wear a bathing suit to a dinner party, he would be doing so because he goes to the beach a lot?
That’s a copout.
The reason office grammar skills are already low, and declining still, is not because young workers spend so much time on these social media tools in their personal lives. They can’t use skills they don’t have. Many of today’s young workers never learned correct grammar in high school or college so it’s not surprising they don’t have the skills to communicate well in business. If companies hire people without good grammar skills, they need to train them, as the Journal reported the companies in the Society for Human Resources Management-AARP survey are starting to do.
And they need to insist that their senior people, who should know good grammar, are overseeing their young coworkers and making sure they know how to use correct grammar and writing styles in everything they do for the business, whether it’s an email, a text, a tweet, or even a conversation.