If you think good “punctuation" means being on time, or that it’s cool to be careless with your commas, watch out. Poor grammar can mess up your chances of getting a job. At the workplace it can prejudice both bosses and subordinates on your ability to communicate and to lead.

Punctuation does provoke passion. A recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog titled “I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why" had over 2,500 comments, most of the impassioned sort—for instance, “I absolutely agree that how we address detail in writing reflects how we address detail in our life and work, if you don’t give a hoot to get your itses then you just don’t get it." A contrarian comment: “This is complete nonsense. The presumption that good grammar leads to good employees is a simplistic fallacy. If dedication to grammar lead to dedication on the job every Fortune 500 company would use such a test."

photoToday in the global market, where English is often a second language, the traditional problems of “its" and “it’s" are being compounded by a whole new set of challenges. With SMS-speak, Hinglish and an attitude of “Its ok yaar…", grammar gets even more garbled.

The new wave

“There’s an arrogance in this (incorrect English)," says Mumbai-based banker-turned-corporate trainer Tarini Vaidya. “As India has emerged from its Hindu rate of growth (and on to the world stage as India Shining), we’re saying ‘we’re like this only. Take it or leave it. This is our brand of (incorrect) English; we understand it perfectly well, so don’t tell us it’s not quite Her Majesty’s English." Vaidya finds this an issue not just among the younger set but even among senior managers.

So while organizations struggle with problems of miscommunication and poor communication, employees often end up glorifying the new speak. “Many of my students tell me that I’m objecting because I am an academic; it is acceptable to speak and write in this style; that others in the workplace understand," says Meenakshi Sharma, associate professor of communications, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Yet language need not always be a critical factor in your career. As adman David Ogilvy put it, “I don’t know the rules of grammar... If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think." Bangalore-based Suparna Mitra, business head, south, Titan Industries Ltd, who has spent many years in sales, agrees: “For many salespeople, who deal with dealers and stockists, the English language and grammar don’t matter as much as the local language."

Nevertheless, she adds, errors in communication do result in people at the workplace forming a negative impression.

“Grammatical errors can change the meaning of what you say," says Sharma. “Like the incorrect use of capitals can be perceived as being rude or angry. Making a typographical error on a PowerPoint slide can result in the people viewing your presentation going away with a poorer view of your abilities," she says, explaining why incorrect language can result in poor career prospects and bad business. Send an email that’s too casual, and there’s a real danger that it won’t even get read, she adds.

The problem areas

From too informal to plain incorrect, the range of errors in email and other official communication is substantial. “The quality of language today has become pathetic. Youngsters, even from premier business institutes, just don’t have a feel for the language," says Mitra, who finds even so-called communication experts like PR agencies sending out press releases riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors.

photoMumbai-based Sangeeta Singh, partner, human resources, at the consulting firm KPMG, agrees: “Today, the English language is being attacked on many fronts. Gen Y has converted English into a whole new language—LOL (Laugh out Loud), WUD (What U doing ), CU (See you)—ably aided by new social media and technology!" Singh explains that using acronyms like these may lead to miscommunication, “We are a global office and need to communicate with many countries. We may assume a particular acronym is known to everybody but that is often not the case. I remember once using EOD (end of day) in a mail and getting back a query on what EOD means." Singh advocates following the rules of grammar and using language appropriately for smoother communication.

Apart from acronyms and argot, there is the misuse of words. Mumbai-based corporate trainer and business writer Raghu Palat tells the story of an analyst who wanted to impress his bosses and clients: “He said he’d write a report after much thought and research that would be ‘puerile’, little realizing that puerile meant ‘childishly silly and trivial’!" Perhaps the word the analyst was looking for was “erudite". Erudite, which means “having or showing great knowledge or learning", is not the most appropriate word either in the context of an equity research report, but it is certainly better than puerile.

Many of the howlers are rib-ticklingly funny. Like the one about the supermarket superviser who emailed his team this message: “Keep the shelves well stalked at all times". Imagine the staff following customers down aisles instead of making sure the shelves were well stocked, and all because of an “al" instead of an “oc". Then there was the case of misspelling, an “e" instead of an “a" that made a “head of navel research" out of the head of naval research. Errors have the potential for economic and other serious consequences. “It was so stressful when I was a CXO with approval authority," says Vaidya. “Often an email would say, ‘Once we will credited the amount in our bank, update you for the same?’ It took me several minutes to completely understand what I had been told. Another sample: ‘Please approval for prematuring deposit. Customer want urgently demand draft for payment.’ I’d pray I wasn’t giving approvals to somebody wanting to sell the bank or do something illegal." Poorly constructed sentences, jumbled tenses and missed keywords could have serious consequences, quite apart from the poor impression they create of the writers of these muddled missives.

Bad grammar in a job application will almost certainly knock you off the shortlist. Yet CVs and applications continue to be riddled with grammar gaffes. Consider this application to a prominent consumer durables manufacturer received by email (all in “caps"): “NOW I AM WORKING IN A CONTRACTUAL. THERE IS NO FUTURE IN LIFE, AND ALSO SALARY IS NOT SAFFICIANT FOR MY WORK. THE FACT IS THAT THERE ARE NO FUTURE. SO THAT I WANT TO LEAVE THIS JOB AND I WANT TO WORK UNDER A COMPANY LIKE (name withheld). AND ALSO I AM WAITING FOR A GOVT JOB. SO THAT I AM APPLYING FOR THIS JOB." It goes without saying that such an application would be rejected.

“Spelling and grammar mistakes like these create a very negative first impression; if somebody is not particular and careful when he is trying to sell himself to you, which is what the job application is all about, what kind of a job is he going to do for you?" points out Vaidya.

What’s the solution?

There are no quick fixes, says Sharma, but she offers some suggestions. “Read extensively. Be conscious of your usage and grammar. Proofread emails and reports." As Vaidya puts it: “It’s not about asking for managers to write award-winning articles; write clearly, in way that is understood easily. Do not take pride in your incorrect English."

After all, no one in the workplace should seek to compete with the Roman emperor, Sigismund, who famously declared “I am the Roman Emperor, and am above grammar."

Clean up your mail

How to write an official email

• Keep it formal: Use a name and salutation rather than “Hey". Avoid smileys, acronyms like ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing). Also, avoid a message that’s just in abbreviated lower case, “wont u take me seriously, give me a chance b4 u make up yr mind", or one in “caps", WE NEED TO MEET.

• Pick a meaningful subject line: Often, the subject line determines whether the email is opened, forwarded or deleted.

• Come to the point: Nobody likes long emails. Try to ensure your message fits in one screen, and doesn’t need scrolling.

• Avoid attachments wherever possible: Too often, emails are read on the go, on phones and on smaller screens. To quote or to reference, try and “cut-paste" relevant sections in the main body of your mail, along with links.

• Customize your signature block: Make sure it’s complete and has your full name, title, company, address and website links. And proofread (preferably twice) before you hit the “Send" button.

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