If you’ve studied linguistics, you’ve learned that the study is not about prescribing how people speak but describing what actually happens when people use a language. At any point in time, a language works according to a shared set of understood rules, which change over time as a language evolves. Linguists seek to understand this, recognizing that “correct” is a temporary state, which can change quickly any time the community of speakers starts using the language differently.
Since language is fluid, does it follow that all new usages, since they are not incorrect, can be used in business settings? Well, not really.
Let’s say you belong to a social circle outside of work that accepts a usage such as “Me and her went to the concert.” Now imagine what could happen if you said something like this in a meeting. You might catch a questioning look from the CEO, after which you can’t really respond to her by saying, “Don’t judge me. Linguists say language evolves, and using ‘me and her’ as subjects of a sentence is now accepted.”
No, the CEO is going to think you don’t know how to speak English. She may be “wrong,” but this is what she is going to think.
However, many “incorrect” usages have become accepted in business settings because they enhance communication. So here is a list of rules I recommend you can and cannot break in business conversations.
Go Ahead, Break These Rules
Split that infinitive
In the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams spoofs a line from the opening of Star Trek by writing “to boldly split infinitives that no man had split them before.”
Start Trek’s “to boldly go” is a split infinitive, considered incorrect English since “boldly” splits “to” and “go,” which are really one unit, the infinitive form of the verb.
I say the time has come to boldly split our infinitives.
The community of English speakers, at least in the U.S., has accepted that it’s ok to say, “I want to quickly find the answer to your question and get back to you,” instead of ““I want to find the answer to your question quickly and get back to you,” because the first version, with the split infinitive, does a better job of communicating the urgency with which the speaker wants to act.
My recommendation: Split an infinitive if it helps you “to emphatically make your point.”
Dangle that preposition
Our supercilious CEO probably won’t lift an eye if you ask her “Who are you going to the airport with?” Yet my junior high composition teacher would have corrected me back in 1972 if I had made this “mistake.”
Fortunately ,we now can ask not only “Who are you going with?” but also “Where are you going to?” “Where are you coming from?” “What are you thinking about?” and many other usages that put prepositions on the ends of phrases.
The rule to stop dangling prepositions has been eroding for a while. Winston Churchill supposedly made a joke about this rule by saying “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
Unite! They and them are one!
When I wrote my first book, Brand Harmony, in 2003, I tortured myself trying to balance my use of gender pronouns in the book’s examples, making sure every he was balanced by a she and every her was balanced by a him. And I ended up struggling with usages such as “if your customer expresses a need it is important to show that you know what he or she wants.”
Ugh. That wasn’t fun.
Fortunately, we have (finally) begun to accept the use of our plural pronouns, they and them, as singular, gender-neutral pronouns. Yes, you can now ask a singular customer what they want. Phew.
Please, Don’t Do It
Now, back to our judgmental CEO. Here are some things I suggest you avoid in business conversation, so you don’t appear to be someone who doesn’t know how to use the English language.
Just between you and I, me and him can’t go to the movie.
Although the interchanging of subject and object pronouns, as in the title of this section, has become commonplace, I recommend you avoid these usages in business. Leave your indignation aside, and save them for social situations.
Don’t Capitalize words that you don’t need to Capitalize
“Our company has a strong focus on our Customers, and we back this up with dedicated Customer Service team members. This is a key focus of our Marketing department.”
Yes, it’s nice to know that this company respects its customers, the concept of customer service and the exalted discipline of marketing, but capitalizing words needlessly is a sure sign that you’re trying extra hard to look impressive … and it’s backfiring.
Don’t make up words, unless your name is Shakespeare
William Shakespeare coined about 1500 new words in his works. He gets to do this, because he’s Shakespeare. I’m sorry to inform you, but it won’t work for you.
Here are some “words” I have heard in business recently:
Resistant, agreement, disingenuous, and distinction work just fine, and these accidental neologisms won’t make you sound like Shakespeare.
Don’t add syllables if you don’t need to
Don’t utilize something if you can use it.
Don’t look for an alternative plan if you can look for an alternate plan.
So, readers, what do you think? Are you ready to break these grammar rules in business? What other rules do you think deserve an early retirement?