Write What You Mean: Words Matter

Several days ago, while listening to a discussion on the radio about the future of education system, I caught a tidbit that made me shudder.  Oddly, it had nothing to do with how programs are designed, the abysmal math scores in the US, or budget cuts.  No, it was the repeated use of the word “theses” when talking about a singular concept.  This was coming from the host repeatedly and was broadcast nationwide.  First of all, the word “thesis” has definition beyond a vague idea.  A thesis is:

  1. A proposition that is maintained by argument.
  2. A dissertation advancing an original point of view as a result of research, especially as a requirement for an academic degree.
  3. A hypothetical proposition, especially one put forth without proof.

As it was used in the context of the discussion, however, it was simply an indeterminate statement lacking a cohesive structure or point.  I suppose that if we choose to apply any sense of definition loosely, then the third definition might make sense, but I digress.  The more significant point that struck me was the use, or misuse, of the word in its plural form.  Considering that both host and guest made this same mistake repeatedly, it got me thinking that perhaps the problems in the system of education, and indeed communication as a whole, is more profound than philosophical disagreements over classroom size or how to teach fractions.

On this surface it sounds like I am playing at language police, that I am subscribing to and promoting a notion of uniform proscriptive grammar but I am not. I am a firm believer in the regional nature of word use and sentence structure.  I have even come to accept, though it pains me tremendously, the use of the word “invite” (a verb) to signify an “invitation” (a noun).  No, the point is that the misuse of words ultimately makes us look stupid, even as we twist words or use phrases we have heard in passing to sound smart. Ideas don’t “jive,” they “jibe.”  Concept testing is rarely about “flushing things out” — if we’re “flushing” rather than “fleshing,” then we probably have a significant problem. This isn’t simply a matter of nitpicking, it’s a matter of how we conduct business and how our clients view us.  Whether written or spoken, the misuse of a word or phrase can diminish our message to the point of irrelevance.

Take for example the use of the phrase “table stakes.” A friend of mine had used this phrase in a project bid but had written “table steaks.” He had also used the word “utilize” repeatedly even though he meant “use.” Unfortunately, he lost the bid and I can’t help but think that it was tied in part to the misuse of the written word.  Again, this isn’t a matter of being overly critical, it’s a matter of perceptions.  I once had a French business associate tell me point blank that a vendor had lost a job because he wrote “coup de gras” (stroke of fat) in an RFP response when he meant to write “coup de grâce.”  It wasn’t that the intended message had somehow been lost or that the professional merit of the vendor was substandard, it was that the vendor came across as sloppy.  And therein lies the problem.

We are bidding on or presenting work that serves a specific business need when we respond to an RFP, giving a presentation of findings, etc.  We are also responding to the unspoken need of the person/persons commissioning the work to look smart and valuable to the company. If we look sloppy or stupid, they look sloppy or stupid.  The point at which a colleague tunes out because he or she sees a glaring error is the point at which the work we do loses any relevance, whether it is a research report, a strategy session or a piece of creative work. We wouldn’t put an engineering diagram in front of a client if the math behind it was wrong. We wouldn’t present a fiscal assessment if we hadn’t bothered to check the calculations.  They same should be true for what we say and write.

So the English teacher in me has a plea for us all: think a little bit before starting writing things.  Put the document in front of a fresh set of eyes or give the presentation to an unbiased set of ears.  Be willing to take critiques and corrections for what they are, not as pettiness on the part of the reviewer.  Something as simple as a single word can make the difference between success and failure.