Should you correct a co-worker who uses poor grammar?

David Pogue and Fans Image

David Pogue offered a talk at the University of Nevada, Reno on Apr. 2, 2015, and poses with fans for pictures following the presentation. He is second from the left, in a gray blazer. Pogue said that technical writers should be careful with the noun “users” in articles about computers and cell phones. Photo by P. Bouweraerts.

By Patricia Bouweraerts —

David Pogue, founder of Yahoo Tech and previously a New York Times technology writer, criticizes technical pieces that include the word “user” when there are other language choices available.

“There are two industries that refer to their customers as “users” – technology and illegal drugs,” he wrote in a 2008 New York Times Pogue’s Posts column. “When you’re writing about computers, there’s almost never a sentence where you couldn’t substitute ‘you’ or, worst case, ‘the customer’ as the noun and thereby improve the sentence. Instead of saying, ‘The user can, at his or her option, elect to remove this functionality,’ say, ‘You can turn this feature off.’

Should his fellow technology writers be annoyed with this criticism? Should non-celebrities evaluate or comment on a colleague’s grammar?

Three experts from the fields of higher education, commerce and management communications say that a peer’s grammar mistakes can be addressed quickly and effectively, benefiting the co-worker, their team, and the company.

It is sometimes better to directly address inaccurate grammar or language use

“Yes, of course, we should be honest and tell our colleague,” said Amy Newman, senior lecturer of management communication at Cornell School of Hotel Administration, Ithaca, N.Y. “As you say, this is best for the business, but it’s also best for the colleague. Someone who cares about doing a good job will want to be corrected.”

A fellow higher education professional, who also has extensive experience in commerce and tourism agrees.

Ralph McMullen, part-time advisor for the Student Government Association at Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC), has taught business speech communications at TMCC, and before that served as the executive director of five major tourism and economic agencies including in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Brevard County, Fla.; Mammoth Lakes, Calif.; Elko, Nev.; and for the State of Idaho Travel Council.

“You need to inform the colleague they must improve their grammar,” McMullen said. “Grammar is very important professionally to be successful in the business world.”

Professor Newman adds that before critiquing a peer’s grammar or language use, a co-worker should first do some fact-checking.

“The situation raises another question: is our version of ‘bad grammar’ correct?” she wrote in an email. “We should be prepared to provide sources and examples, particularly in cases when we’re addressing stylistic choices that may not be universally held.”

Skip Weisman is a keynote speaker, trainer, coach and consultant in workplace communications in the New York City area who also agrees that the situation of a colleague’s incorrect grammar can be tackled.

Weisman said that when talking to a peer about their grammar, though, you should think more of what would benefit them, and also know where they are coming from.

“It should be addressed promptly, directly and respectfully; the conversation should be framed in a way that speaks to the best interests of the individual you are confronting,” he wrote in an email. “To do that you need to understand the other person’s situation.”

He suggests trying to discern whether the colleague cares about the job and the company for which he or she works. Does the workmate express the desire for a future with the company, or say that they want to present a professional appearance with growth in their skill set? Do they indicate they are interested in getting references from a superior or moving up in their career field?

“If the answer to those questions is ‘no,’ then your suggested feedback may not matter and be a waste of breath,” he said.

Weisman adds that it is a good practice to think about your relationship with the colleague. This applies both to rapport, and to whether you are a peer or superior to them in the company.

“Do you have high levels of trust with them where they believe you have their best interests in mind? … If not, they won’t take it well, probably,” he said.

Newman agrees that talking honestly with a peer includes the potential consequence of wondering how that colleague will react.

“The situation brings up a bigger question about how we address issues with others at work — and perhaps in our personal lives,” she said. “Should we withhold bad news for fear of retribution or bad feelings? I hope for a workplace that is more open — one where people engage in healthy conflict because they will learn from it and help others to learn.”

I hope for a workplace that is more open — one where people engage in healthy conflict because they will learn from it and help others to learn.

Amy Newman, Cornell School of Hotel Administration, Ithaca, NY

When the subject of improving grammar is brought up, make it about success

Weisman said to aim toward success for the individual and the team.

“The conversation needs to be framed in a way that speaks to the fact that you are speaking to their best interests,” he said. “I would suggest framing it from the career aspect, promotion in the company, looking good to your boss, etc. and less on making a good impression on behalf of the company.”

Weisman proposes the following example of wording one might use to ask for a co-worker to pay more attention to their grammar or language use:

“’I’m wondering if you might be open to feedback on something I’ve noticed that may help you in making a more positive impression with your boss and make it better/easier for you to get a raise/promotion, or at least not provide a negative impression in your boss’ perspective?’”

Then, if the peer says ‘no,’ a person has to make the decision whether to take it to a higher level. First, though, Weisman advises a staff member to express to their peer the concern that clients may connect their experience with the company’s communications to their perception of the product.

Before an employee brings the situation to the attention of superiors, Weisman said it is considerate to say something like, “’If it gets to that point I will come to you first to let you know and see if you’d like to work on it first.’”

But if the co-worker says “yes,” Weisman said, you can be specific about what you’ve noticed and offer a second set of eyes for proofreading to back them up. He adds that they may have been rushing in order to get out the product or communication faster, and therefore appreciate the assistance.

“If they say ‘yes’ and you begin helping with the proofreading, then it provides the opportunity to go deeper in the feedback as things are presented to you.” Weisman said. “If they say ‘no’ you can continue to ask them again the next time you notice things raising your level of concern.”

So it may be an acceptable game plan to coach your colleague with language use — if you’ve done your homework, that is.

Based on the advice of management communications experts, higher education and business professionals, it can sometimes be OK to improve the functionality of the team and turn the “grammar-correcting feature” on.

Additional resources:

The Grammar Girl, “Your friendly guide to the world of grammar, punctuation, usage, and fun developments in the English language.”

Skip Weisman, Championship Communication, “The three levels of communication influence.”

11 comments

  1. ofir - April 10, 2016 9:54 am

    should you correct your co worker’s grammar? Depends on how much it is important for you to gain his hate.

    i believe one should stick to harass his own friends, not co workers.

    • admin - April 11, 2016 4:08 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ofir! This is Patricia, the writer of the article. I try to remain as neutral as possible in my writing. Personally, I was grateful that someone tweeted me about a small hyphenation error in my piece that could be quickly corrected. Thanks again for reading and participating!

  2. Dan - April 13, 2016 1:16 am

    Interesting article. Maybe it is poor grammar, or maybe it is a poor editor, but I couldn’t help noticing a few misspellings and mismatched possessive pronouns with their antecedents. 🙂

    • admin - April 14, 2016 1:26 am

      Thank you, Dan. I like that you’re keeping me on my toes. I’ll look for the “be”/”by” spelling typo. Also, you asked through email about “the use of singular antecedents (e.g. ‘a colleague’) followed by the possessive pronoun ‘their'” in my writing. The reason for this is to avoid too many “he or she” references. This is not an Associated Press rule, but rather my personal thought that reading “he or she” or “he/she” more than once or twice gets a bit cumbersome. Other writers may not agree with me, but I’ve decided to use “their” in some sentences. Thanks again!

  3. Marla Johnson - April 13, 2016 11:32 pm

    Thank you for this thought-provoking, insightful piece! It certainly shined some light on different aspects of this daunting subject that I had not considered before.

    • admin - April 14, 2016 1:31 am

      Thanks so much, Marla! You made my day! Sincerely, Patricia

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