Corporate illiteracy

As e-mails replace phone calls in business communication, corporate bosses are discovering that their employees can’t write a coherent sentence. A study of 120 corporations “concluded that a third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training. “

Millions of inscrutable e-mail messages are clogging corporate computers by setting off requests for clarification, and many of the requests, in turn, are also chaotically written, resulting in whole cycles of confusion.

Here is one from a systems analyst to her supervisor at a high-tech corporation based in Palo Alto, Calif.: “I updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file).. to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with incorrect information … However after verifying controls on JBL – JBL has the indicator as B ???? – I wanted to make sure with the recent changes – I processed today – before Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to ‘C’.”

The incoherence of that message persuaded the analyst’s employers that she needed remedial training.

. . . Some $2.9 billion of the $3.1 billion the National Commission on Writing estimates that corporations spend each year on remedial training goes to help current employees, with the rest spent on new hires.

Pager shorthand is a problem too, as in this message to a business writing instructor:

“hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again,” one student wrote to her recently. “i had sent you the assignment earlier but i didnt get a respond. If u get this assgnment could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation.”

My sister, a laid-off tech writer, used to teach remedial English at community colleges. She should get into the thriving business of business writing instruction.

About Joanne


  1. Mike in Texas says:

    Are these the same corporations outsourcing jobs overseas to companies with employees who can barely speak English, or can’t speak it well enough for you to understand them over the phone? Or provide you with a native English speaker for an extra price?

  2. For many years I ran a college intern program for a large company. We hired a lot of very intelligent, highly motivated, technically proficient students who performed very well in their positions.

    However, when asked to write a short report to document their activities, many of them became flustered and frustrated. Quite simply, they lacked the writing skills to put together two coherent sentences needed to generate a meaningful report. In essence, their reports were beneath what would have been accepted in a high school freshman writing class – at least when I was a student.

    My daughter recently graduated from High School, and in watching her assignments, I have a pretty good idea of how this sorry situation came about. Very seldom was she ever assigned to write a paper. Far more often, she was told to create a poster – and then explain her work in a two minute class presentation. Pretty pictures generated by PowerPoint coupled with a few choice phrases replaced any in-depth analytical writing requirement.

    I hate to say it, but I’m convinced that the reason for this type of assignment is that they require little work on the part of the teacher. By having students present in class, the teacher’s class preparation is reduced. And since all grading can be done “instantly” in class, there is no need for the teacher to painstakingly read and evaluate student papers.

    Obviously, the students prefer these easier assignments, and I doubt that most of them ever even realize that they are being cheated out of learning a valuable and necessary skill. It’s a shame, but I truly believe that this type of assignment will only become more common, and American writing skills will continue on their downward spiral.

  3. Clearly “hI KATHY” is a sign of someone too damn lazy to correct their caps lock error. That’s almost worse than illiteracy.

    Also, do people really believe that they need to “save space” in e-mail by writing “u r” instead of “you are” or “ur” for “your”? It would actually take me more time to remember to abbreviate than it would to just type the whole word, so these people must believe either that the word is actually spelled that way or that they are doing a good deed by saving electrons.

  4. You’re not concerned about the coming electron shortage, Maribeth?

    My daughter was doing those damn posters up till 12th grade. Blame “multiple intelligences” theory. However, she also wrote research papers and essays. In some schools, students write journals, make posters and do PowerPoint, and that’s about it.

  5. I’ve seen the inability to put a coherent paragraph together in both my niece and nephew who are currently wading their way through high school. I used to proof read some of their assignments. My favorite example was the use of the word “peoples” several times in a short research my nephew was writing. While I don’t claim to be a prolific writer, I’m pretty sure that “peoples” isn’t a word. This is a kid that is one of the brighter students. My niece and nephew are totally unable to produce a paper with a clear thought. Their earlier school years emphisized power point presentations, poster production and my favorite: the group assignment. One would think that the group assignment would produce a better result but that is very far from the case. They go to school in a middle-upper middle class suburban school district.

  6. I have a few students in my calculus class this semester that insist on writing to me in the “hI KATHY” vein. One illustrative example:
    “i always dreded them. o well, what are u gonna do. thanx again though. cya.”
    When I get students writing “ur” I have to fight the urge to ask them why they are writing to their math teacher about ancient civilizations.

  7. Richard Brandshaft says:

    There are two threads running through this, which are impossible to separate in single examples. One is basic incompetence in writing. The other is how much care one should take with a casual e-note.

    I’ve made errors in both directions. When I first got a word processor, I carefully proof read and printed several drafts of notes I left for my cleaning woman. On the other hand, I’ve written letters (and posts here), proof read them quickly, and cringed when I glanced at them the next day.

    The problem is that e-notes have evolved into almost a written substitute for speech. We accept that people speaking will occasionally stumble and use the wrong word. We are used to ignoring it.

    Writing is supposed to be prepared carefully. But if you dash off dozens of e-notes a day, how much time should you spend proof reading? And what is a casual note, and what is a formal preparation, to be held to higher standards? E-writing has not been around long enough for standards to have gelled.


  1. If u can rede this u rede 2 much email

    Colleges aren’t the only ones spending cash to bring people up to basic literacy levels, as Joanne Jacobs notes. R. Craig Hogan, a former university professor who heads an online school for business writing here, received an anguished e-mail message…