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Regardless of what you thought, grammar rules do apply to e-mail

What did we ever do without electronic mail — the ubiquitous e-mail that is fast, convenient and efficient. It has also supplanted real correspondence and reduced the volume of phone calls and in-person discussions.

In many cases it is also an enemy of the English language. Communication by e-mail, especially in the business world, does not mean the rules of grammar flew out the window.
According to English instructors, the rules of correct usage, punctuation and clear thinking have not changed. Sentences still begin with capital letters and end with periods.

Paragraphs still have a reason for being. Words should be spelled out the old fashioned way without reliance on acronyms and abbreviations. The goal of business communication is to convey a clear message.

Speaking volumes

The way you communicate through e-mail also says something about you and your professional attitude.

“Any correspondence I get from a business or a person is a reflection of them and it might be all I know about them” said Beverly Fatherree, an English instructor at Hinds Community College with 25 years of experience. “Anything that comes out over your name represents you and needs to be correct.”

She finds the careless regard for correct usage of language in e-mail appalling and calls it a disease. “I tell students they should follow all the standard rules of English,” she said. “People see it as informal but it isn’t when it’s used for business.”

Electronic correspondence was originally used mostly for social correspondence. Fatherree feels that may be the root of the problem now that it’s moved into the business world.

“Part of it is the society in which we live. We have become so relaxed and informal. It’s a carry over,” she said. “There’s a problem with the public perception we have that e-mail is casual.”

Fatherree conducts workshops for organizations that want their employees to brush up on the rudiments of English grammar and recently did one for the Secretary of State’s office.

“It is the most expedient way to communicate,” she said, “but I haven’t learned the abbreviations and acronyms for e-mail, and I don’t want to know them.”

A retired English instructor of 40 years at East Central Community College, Ovid Vickers, 75, writes a personal column for four newspapers and honors the traditional rules of English usage.

“E-mails certainly limit creativity and are taking liberties with the language,” he said. “My wife got an e-mail the other day with so many acronyms she had to call the person who sent it and ask ‘What are you saying?’”

He says the electronic form of writing is creating a cryptic language and crippling communication. “It should be approached just like sitting at a desk and writing a standard business letter,” he said. “It must be brief but the rules of English still apply.”

Vickers acknowledges that the speed with which we can communicate is the key to e-mail’s popularity. It has made working from long distances and homes possible too.

Stephen Bushardt teaches management and behavior communications in the college of business at the University of Southern Mississippi. He encourages students to treat e-mail like a formal business letter.

“My advice for e-mail is ‘Don’t send them.’ People tend to get casual with e-mails and that is not the way business correspondence should be,” he said. “I tell students that most of the time an e-mail thank you is not appropriate. I make them write a good bit and keep journals.”

Symptom of a larger problem?

Bushardt feels that the misplaced casualness of e-mail is part of the need for more business etiquette training. He requires students to read “How to Work a Room: The Ultimate Guide to Savvy Socializing in Person and Online” and “How Etiquette You Don’t Know Can Kill Your Career.”

He brings in Hattiesburg consultant Diane T. Eaves to teach etiquette for e-mail, dining, wine tasting and other business functions. “The students get a firm grounding in economics, finance and marketing but they need business etiquette,” he said.

Eaves attended the Protocol School in Washington, D.C., and is in demand for business etiquette seminars in addition to the workshops she teaches at Southern Miss.

“The sad part is that e-mail should be done the same as a letter but people have gotten into the habit of typing in anything,” she said. “We get so many e-mails and that’s part of the problem. The volume is much greater than letters.”

Overwhelmed and in a hurry

She thinks the huge number of e-mails causes people to get in a hurry, often carelessly copying what others have sent, giving rise to common e-mail abbreviations and phrases.

“We now have people whose virtual socializing, conversing and networking have exceeded the real time they spend on these activities,” she said. “With that, we have lost a lot of our personal touch. The online world not only gives us a new type of room to ‘work’ but we can work that room any time without the boundaries of walls or time.”

Eaves says that although e-mail should be brief, adding an appropriate pleasantry or greeting adds the high touch and strikes a balance. “We can have ‘short’ sentences but not sound ‘short’ in our sentences,” she said. “We want them to be declarative (statements), not imperative (orders).”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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