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Posted: February 15, 2011

Mangling the language will cost you

Inability to communicate can make you look inept

John Heckers

An essential part of being an executive is communication, both written and verbal. Unfortunately, many executives fail at this essential function.

The inability to communicate grammatically and concisely can make you look inept, and cost you great career opportunities. Here are a few areas to watch.

1). Inappropriate use of homophones. "Homophones" are groups of words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Some of the most commonly abused ones are "your" and "you're," "there," "they're" and "their," and "we're" and "were." For example, "your" means "belonging to you." "You're" means "you are." I cannot count how many times I have seen even top executives confuse these terms.

2). Neologisms. A "neologism" is a word that is made up from whole cloth, often by the confusing of two words such as Sarah Palin did when she came up with "refudiate." Now, Shakespeare also created neologisms, many of which are an essential part of our language today. Were it not for the Bard, we could not castigate the youth of today for overusing the word "excellent." (Both castigate and excellent are said to have been invented by Shakespeare.) But, let's face it, neither former half-term governors from our coldest state nor most executives are the immortal Bard. Leave the neologisms to those on the cutting edge or people will just make fun of you...rightly so.

3). Misuse of existing words. More common than the creation of new words is the misuse of existing words. For example, there is the confusion (easy to do) between "accept" and "except." "Accept" is a verb meaning to "agree with," "take in" or "receive." "Except" is a preposition that means "apart from." "Except" can also be a verb meaning "to exclude." For more on this and many other commonly confused words, go here .

4). Use of slang. I believe that grown-ups should be allowed the use of the word "awesome" exactly three times before being banished to the children's table. It is very easy, especially if you have teen-agers, to begin to speak and even write in slang. But grown-ups need to speak and write as grown-ups, not teen-agers. It not only makes you look ridiculous, but it really makes your teens angry. After all, teens speak in "teen-speak" to exclude you. When you show that you are actually bright enough to learn their language, it destroys their fragile egos. It can also destroy your career.

5). Profanity. There is a time and a place for profanity. Business is neither the time nor the place. While profanity is becoming far more common in our society, it should be reserved for private meetings with people you know well, not used in the conduct of business.

6). Blasphemy. The use of the name of a deity or those associated with a deity inappropriately may be highly offensive to some people. While the misuse of the name of the most common deity in America will not get your head cut off, it may well cut off your opportunities. Be respectful of the deities of others, whether or not you, yourself, are a believer in that deity (or any deity).

7). Jargon. I've written extensively in the past on the pernicious rise of jargon. Don't use it. For more on this issue, go here.

8). Use of texting abbreviations in emails. When texting, there are good reasons for the use of abbreviations, such as preservation of one's thumbs. Do not allow these abbreviations to creep into your business email or written communications.

9). Typos. I see many résumés riddled with typos. This can cost you a job. Your professional documents, such as résumé and cover letter, should be impeccable. Have a couple of different people "proof" these documents before you give them out.

10). Old-fashioned phrasing. Having said all of that, the English language is evolving. Earlier English grammar was based on Latin grammatical rules, as our forebears thought Latin was the perfect language. In the past it made for very convoluted English sentences. "This kind of foolishness is something up with which I will not put." Technically proper. Sounds stupid. Make sure you know the evolving rules of the language. It is now perfectly OK to "boldly go where no one has gone before."

Not communicating well can dramatically limit your career in business, as well as limiting you socially. Communicating well is not the only key to the executive suite...but it is an essential tool in pursuing your career.
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John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC was an Executive, Relationships, Life and Spiritual Coach in Denver with 30 years of experience  helping people with their lives, relationships and careers.

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Readers Respond

Bravo! While I agree with both of the previous comments, I am delighted to see this article. As a writer and a professional in the corporate world, I am deeply alarmed by the continual degradation of the language. When I see such errors from those far above me on the corporate ladder, I am embarassed for them. Every professional has a responsbility to communicate well in all formats. By JJ Shaffer on 2011 03 02
My red pen and I thank you profusely for this article! By Patricia B Smith on 2011 02 16
Timothy --- you are technically correct,however...this is one of those areas where common usage trumps former usage. When one says "verbal," virtually everyone "sees" oral communication. As I said in #10, the English language IS evolving. What was incorrect back in the Dark Ages when I was in school (my daughter says in B.C.), is now considered correct. Words change their meaning, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically, over time. However, whenever I write on this subject, it brings out the full range of people with opinions on the language, ranging from those who think we should still speak and write as we did in the 19th C., to those who think English can be used any way the writer or speaker wishes. I try to strike a middle ground and use English well, but flexibly and so it is attractive to contemporary sensibilities. By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 02 15
Excellent article, John. Incorrect grammar is one of my pet peeves. I do have to take issue with your first sentence. The use of "verbal" in that context is really incorrect. Written communication is verbal, as is oral communication. Perhaps a better choice of words would have been "communication, written and oral." By Timothy Fleming on 2011 02 15

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