Why business needs good English—and those who know it best

“________ always need good writers,” I hear all the time. Fill in the blank: Companies, nonprofits, publications, editors, yadda yadda.

It’s not quite as easy as all that, but I’m heartened to hear from the occasional boss who follows through on this platitude. One is Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, who wrote in Harvard Business Review, “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” (“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me,” he began.) The article has attracted more than 4,000 comments.

Weeks ago, freelancer Bruce Watson interviewed other bosses who emphasize that a good understanding of English is crucial to business. “I’ve seen projects shot down because the writing, grammar, and layout were scattered and confusing,” said Elias Dagher, senior principal at New York City’s Dagher Engineering LLC. “If my employees are trying to convey a lot of information or a complex concept in an email, they need to have it peer-reviewed for clarity and tone,” said Hope Lane, a partner in the Washington accounting firm Aronson LLC.

A good grasp of English isn’t important only to bosses. A little over a year ago, the online grammar-checking company Grammarly did a study of 100 profiles on LinkedIn, which exists to put resumes and other professional credentials in front of recruiters, references, and potential employers. The study showed, among other things, that workers who got promoted six to nine times over 10 years made 45 percent fewer grammatical mistakes there than those who got promoted only one to four times. I can’t vouch for the study’s scientific accuracy (people get promoted nine times in 10 years?), but the differences seem significant. Generally, the study concluded, folks who use the language better go further in their careers and reach a higher level.

This isn’t just a domestic matter, either. As the world shrinks, English keeps growing in importance internationally; it’s become the top second language on Earth. When more than 25,000 employees of global corporations were surveyed over an 18-month period, the percentage who said that English was either “critical” or “important” rose every quarter—to a high of 91 percent.  The problem: Only 9 percent said their own English was good enough to match their current job. (What we’ve got here is either extreme modesty or a failure to communicate.)

I know expats in Greece who pay for calamari and ouzo by chatting up the C-level an hour at a time so these captains of industry can practice their English. It’s a funny concept. More seriously, from this evidence and more, it behooves all of us to improve our English, if only to get ahead at work.

And those of us who are expert in English as a first language should be prized for our ability to help captains of industry stateside—and folks throughout the corporation—explain concepts, sell products, persuade voters, solve problems, give direction, write reports, hone proposals, craft surveys, interpret results, and more. Hire us. Because business always needs good writers—and editors.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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