Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Dispatches From the Hell of Electronic Memos

Leonard Ford just sent along a Times article ("What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence") documenting the woeful state of writing in the business world. Of course, if the problem were just aesthetic, it wouldn't matter much, but bad writing goes straight to the bottom line. The National Commission on Writing estimates that corporations spend as much as $3.1 billion each year teaching employees how to do better than "i am writing a essay on writing i work for this company and my boss want me to help improve the workers writing skills can yall help me with some information thank you" -- as a manager quoted in the article wrote.

Whatever else high schools and universities are supposed to do, they should be doing better than this. Then again, if corporations were willing to bankroll a $3.1 billion program devoted to English education, maybe high schools might be able to get it right in the first place. (Then again, maybe not.)

It's not all gross incompetence. The article tends to confound these separate threads, but part of the problem is the anything-goes atmosphere surrounding e-mail -- which in turn contaminates memoranda and official reports as well. Once careful writers let the deceptive immediacy and informality of e-mail turn their writing into a kind of mental diarrhea. "Instead of considering what to say when they write, people now just let thoughts drool out onto the screen," says a writing consultant quoted in the article.

Another problem is technically sound but irredeemably bad writing, here attributed to CEOs and upper-management types. Another consultant reports that "many of these guys write in inflated language that desperately needs a laxative." I don't know why the business world suggests so many digestive metaphors, but it seems appropriately inappropriate. Writers rightly love those metaphors too.

It's always interesting what people are willing to allow themselves to do poorly. Most of us would never admit to being bad drivers or to lacking a sense of humor, while mathematical ability and poor spelling top the list of acceptable incompetencies. Grammar and punctuation were never far behind. I hope that businesses' attempts to get their own house in order speak to a redoubled effort to defend that last line in the sand, rather than another barrier washed away by the tide.

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