Wednesday, August 03, 2005


There’s an urban legend doing the rounds that is taken every bit as seriously as kidnapped girls with cancer and exploding cacti, it’s that spelling and precise grammatical expression are no longer necessary, the Internet has done away with all that and TV, SMS and IM have finished the job of dismantling a system that no longer serves a purpose but perpetuate a language elitism that excludes those who cannot or will not master it. Apparently nobody gives a shit or even notices if you write like a six year old schoolgirl on a double dose of Ritalin, nobody cares if you make cute little baby “i”s, or mix up two words that sound the same (aloud/allowed). This may hold true when you’re planning your weekend, but unless your daddy’s rich (and your mother’s looks are irrelevant), you’re going to have to come face to face with the modern office at some point in your life.

Here’s another myth, the paperless office, never in the history of the world has there been so much paper, every company operating in the world is awash with documents and emails, reports and presentations and somebody has to write them, and that person is you. Time was when there were “support staff” who could figure our your handwriting, check your spelling and fiddle with your grammar, not any more, you’re on your own now and if you can’t express yourself in a reasonably effective way or at least avoid embarrassing yourself, nobody is going to have a chance to notice your inner brilliance.

It’s all the fault of lawyers and politicians because everything has to be put in writing and printed and filed in case of lawsuits, audits or regulator enquiries, and because there’s an invention called a copier, several hundred copies must be made of everything, so your mistakes are distributed far and wide, your interesting use of English, your quaint spelling, your toe-curling typos are available to be seen and read and scoffed at by your colleagues for years to come. There’s also the dreaded Powerpoint presentation and if you make a Freudian slip-up here, your mistake is huge against the wall for a roomful of people to snicker at.

Another urban legend is that you can break all the rules and still make a zillion dollars, and while this might hold true for some things and some people, it does not hold true in the business world. Try to convince a CA MBA bean counter at a major bank to part with money for an interesting business idea, when your proposal is full of typos and ludicrous spelling. Attention to detail is not just a good thing, it’s an absolute requirement and it starts and ends with the way you write.

Not big words, mind you, or flowery language, the sole purpose of business communication is to get the point across in a way that is understood by the other party, and since we operate in a global context, if you’re writing to someone in another country, you have to communicate your meaning without ambiguity and simultaneously watch out for that horrible cross-cultural faux pas. Europeans especially are proud of their painfully acquired English and if you use the wrong word in the wrong context and if your e-mail is riddled with mistakes, you’re dead meat in a dog eat dog world.

I once got an e-mail from a group of Austrians who were due to arrive in South Africa asking me if I would be kind enough to organize a “brei” during their visit. I was wondering if this was some sort of Teutonic knitting circle when I realized they wanted the traditional South African activity of building a fire and burning bits of cow flesh. If you’re a native English speaker you have a huge advantage over those who learned ein zwei drei and if you can’t even write your own home language in a legible manner, you can look forward to long and satisfying career packing parcels at Checkers.

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