I was in a convenience store a while back when I saw a sign at the register: No Checks Excepted.
Yielding to the impish impulse to engage in some semantic sport, I asked the clerk, “Oh, so you will take my check? Any check?”
Forgoing the detail of the resulting verbal parrying, let’s just say the exchange ended when she said with exasperation, “Oh, you know what it means.”
Well, yes, of course I did. However, (may I start a sentence with a conjunction?) it was only because we are now resigned to interpret today’s tortured grammar rather than trust it can still serve its real purpose – being clear.
Whether spelling, syntax or grammar, examples abound. “Busses stop here” (ah, a No Kissing Zone!). “Irregardless” strikes me as some sort of triple negative. “I could care less” makes me worry that people are more ambivalent than they even appear. Never mind getting into the difference between “compared with” and “compared to.” (No one has ever compared me to my favorite author Bill Bryson, but I worry that I might someday be compared with him and found hopelessly lacking.)
A great article this week by Mark Goldblatt in the Wall Street Journal was a despairing call for respect of our language, or at least a defense of the college professor who actually expects sentences to mean what they say. Oh, you know what I meant.
The language of a leader matters
So, is this departure from my normal discussions of leadership simply the peptic grumblings of a linguistic fussbudget? What does this have to do with leadership? Does it matter in business, really?
Of all the attributes shared by great leaders I have seen or worked with over the years, ranked high on the list is the ability to get ideas across – clearly, convincingly, inspirationally and unambiguously. In a world where we seemingly are condemned to write with our thumbs rather than our minds, we can get pretty sloppy about our choice of words and the structure of our expression. I have always believed the only enduring way to hold a high standard for spelling and grammar is to read great writing, and Facebook and Twitter are hardly paragons of those virtues. It’s easy to assure ourselves that it’s “those other folks” who are sliding down the slope, but it creeps in with all of us if we are not vigilant. (I credit much of whatever writing ability I have to my dear friend Larry, who long ago drew me into a conspiracy to write long tomes to each other with the delightful intent of saying things in a better, deeper, and often whimsical way. Iron sharpens iron.)
Words matter enormously. They are the vehicle for our ideas, vision, direction and intent. As well, used properly or carelessly, they can reveal much about our sense of discipline, education, self-awareness and even regard for the broader social order.
Really, it matters that much?
Many of us may have long lost sight of how to diagram a sentence or can recall the exact meaning of elements like prepositions or conjunctions or participles, yet how many times have we still felt that twinge when a leader fumbles a choice of words or garbles their syntax? We may not even be able to identify the error; we just knew something was off. How do we really feel about them? Are they held to the same regard?
Guarding your language as a tool of leadership, investing the time to say it better than you might otherwise in the haste of the moment, sorting through to select the ripest words from the basket available, ensuring that our language contributes to our influence rather than robs from it, is part of leadership.
Language lifts us up. It paints vision in our minds and hearts. It carves a clear line of sight to our goals. It reflects our character, our care, our disciplines.
It should always say what we mean to say.