“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
After a long hiatus, I am pleased to return to my self-appointed position as coach, consultant and snark-in-chief for the business language world. So much has gone wrong in the past year — Bridgegate, emojis and selfie sticks come to mind — that I think we’ll have a lot to talk about. Please send me your pet language peeves and follow The Corporate Writer to hear about mine. Wishing you a joyful and prosperous new year!
I hate the passive voice; it’s sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (“the newsletter was delayed”) or fathering a child out of wedlock (“the situation was unfortunate”).
I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil (we used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century, children). But after 20 years on the front lines, today I admit defeat.
The passive clause is essential to corporate writing. Like the heads of the Hydra, every time I lop one off, two come back. Whether justifying ourselves to shareholders or placing the blame on another department, we can’t get by without it.
Ragan has posted my latest rant, on grammar rules that were made to be broken. My favorite: it’s time to stop worshiping at the altar of Strunk & White. A lot of their style rules really suck. There. I said it.
On the subject of rule-breaking, I am also proud to announce my first piece for Salon, a personal essay about my unusual family. It has nothing to do with business writing, but I hope you enjoy it.
Everyone’s seen them: sentences, phrases or whole publications so awful they literally made you squirm. In honor of appalling writing–and the people who make it happen–I’ve created this sure-to-be-coveted annual trophy. Early submissions include:
“Out to the yard, where fantasy awaits.” (Residential real estate listing, presumably for a brothel)
“Our work will give you a piece of mind.” (Masonry company brochure)
I think we’ve established that I’m a writing snob, grammarian from hell, bitch in the next cubicle—whatever you want to call it. To quote a Facebook group I was recently invited to join, “I judge you when you confuse their and they’re.”
But there are situations where formally correct writing isn’t necessary or even desirable. One example is when you’re talking exclusively to peers. The associates’ newsletter, written by associates for associates, will come off as stuffy if it refers to “Mr. Fuster’s performance on the field” at the company softball game. A group text to IT employees under the age of 25 didn’t ruffle any feathers when it began, “Imma reserve the conf room for the 3 pm.”
There are two rules to keep in mind when writing informally. First, be appropriate; that “Imma” would look ridiculous to most people over the age of 35. Second, err on the side of formality, especially if you have a tendency to “joke” with terms that could be considered offensive. A memo addressed to “Hos and bros,” meant only for members of a tightly knit sales department, resulted in the writer getting fired when it was forwarded to the CEO.
Which brings up another point: assume your message will get forwarded. And be ready to explain yourself when it does.