Consultant teaches business people the art of grammar

"If you speak perfect English in America, you will have no friends, but if you don't write almost perfect English on the job, you will get no promotions," says Margo Redmond, a business writing consultant based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Redmond is reaching and teaching people in business who never before understood the logic of language and mostly operated "by ear and instinct." The trouble with that, she says, is Americans have confused ears. And depending on where you were raised, your ear could be badly tuned.

Most professionals live in fear of embarrassing themselves when it comes to grammar, so they imitate others' grammar and punctuation without knowing if it's right. As adults we're more than a little embarrassed to ask, and until recently, there was nowhere to learn the rules--unless you wanted to sneak a peek at your child's grammar book.

Redmond has found a niche for her skills in this grammar goop. Since 1981 she has guided business people across the quicksand of grammar. In fact, she has laid this trap for you. She says the following sentences contain the five most common grammar and punctuation mistakes of educated business people. Can you spot them?

1.      The personal computer, electronic mail and other modern marvels may be the undoing of whomever in all innocence uses them.

2.      Secretaries no longer correct our mistakes, we are out on a limb, exposed.

3.      Never before has it been possible to communicate so rapidly, however, never has it been possible to embarrass ourselves so rapidly.

4.      Anyone can discredit our good ideas because of grammar and punctuation errors.

5.      I long ago learned that mistakes in my letters reflect on both my employer and myself.

Here's what Redmond says about the answers:

1.      In sentence one, place a comma in the series after mail. That comma fell from favor with rule makers in the 1960's but made a comeback when they realized that removing it could create confusion and even legal problems, as with, "Divide my estate as follows: equal portions to Arnie Arbunckle, Minnie Mumford, Percy Schmitt and Dora Schmitt." (Do we divide by three or four?)

Change whomever to whoever. Forget the useless old rule about the object of the preposition (of) being in the objective case. (Good grief, she's lost me!) That rule, she says, only works sometimes. Instead she teaches this jingle to corporate clients in in-house workshops, "If it has something to do, it must be a who." (Apparently she does not shrink from sounding like Dr. Seuss if it helps break through grammar anxiety.) The who does have something to do in that sentence: it "uses them."

2.      In sentence two, change the comma to and. "The comma is a mark of separation, not marriage," says Redmond. (Redmond demonstrates that grammar and punctuation are often as logical as life, and she relies on real-life metaphors, rather than technical terms, to make her point.) To "marry" two sentences because they have a lot in common, you need either a "marriage" symbol (;) or a "marriage" word like and.

3.      In sentence three, change the comma to a semicolon (;). It's the best way to marry these sentences. Many people think however can join sentences in wedlock; it can't. To them, Redmond recites this rhyme: "and, or, but, nor,/ yet, so, for--but never however!"

4.      No errors.

5.      Sentence five contains one error. Change myself to me. Many business people use myself in an effort to sound modestly self-effacing. It is proper only when you do something to yourself (or she does something to herself, etc.) Use me when you do nothing; use I when you do something.

If you don't know an adverb from a conjunction, here are some additional desk references, The Business Writer's Handbook, by Brusaw, Alred, and Oliu; The Writer's Hotline Handbook, by Montgomery and Stratton; and On Writing Well by Zinsser.

 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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