Leading your users to (partial) literacy

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." -- the oldest English proverb (first recorded use in 1175) that is still in regular use today.

You chaps in IT are a pretty educated bunch. You deal with complex ideas and you have to read and write all the time. You know about spelling and grammar checkers, you understand the need to edit the stuff you write ... you are literate.

Alas, it might not be possible to say the same about the rest of your organization, and if there's one thing that will sink your company in these harsh economic times, it is an inability to communicate. For any organization trying to get ahead in a competitive market, having staff with spelling, writing, and for that matter, speaking problems, is a huge problem.

Consider spelling: In this age of automatic spell checkers, poor spelling is inexcusable. Just consider how many times every day you see "teh." I have yet to find a spelling checker that misses that, yet we see it constantly. So why aren't your users using automatic spell checkers? And if they have them and are still making goofs, why is that?

This underlines one of the odd things about computer technology: Most users have a tendency to only know about and use just the minimum they need to get by. If they were driving a car in the same way they'd never get out of first gear.

As for writing, do your users proofread what they write? Based on the email I get, I would venture a guess that very few do so. They dash off email and documents of all kinds and it is a good bet that the bulk will be laced with glaringly bad grammar and littered with misspellings. I swear, some of the messages I get sound like they were dictated to Siri while driving a tank that was on fire in a hailstorm.

But where we see constant failure in the literacy department is in the use of tired stock phrases. At least half of the personally addressed messages I receive each day use phrases like "I just want to touch base." Really, you want to touch my base? Sounds distinctly overfamiliar to me. And don't tell me you want to "reach out" to me (you must have very long arms), and don't bother asking if I have a "quick second" (no, I do not have a quick second, mine are all of the regular length).

Then there's "quantum leap," a particularly irritating phrase which, in the way it's commonly used, makes no sense! According to the [Free Dictionary][http://www.thefreedictionary.com/quantum], a quantum is the "smallest amount of a physical quantity that can exist independently," so a quantum leap is really, really tiny and unless you're a particle physicist, you probably mean quite the opposite.

While persuading your users to eschew cliched language might be an uphill if not un-winnable battle (you could consider adding rules to your mail server to bounce back messages using trite phrases, though I doubt you'll ever get that idea to fly), you can institute training to make sure they at least know how to use their spelling and grammar checking tools properly. Whether they'll actually use them is another matter.

To rephrase that old proverb: You can lead a user to word processing, but you can't make him think.

Gibbs in Ventura, Calif., wants to know what "fails" you've seen in the spelling, writing, and speaking departments. Touch base for a quick second at gearhead@gibbs.com and, taking a quantum leap, follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

Tags clichewritingiPhonecareersliteracycareerIT managementSirispelling checkerconsumer electronicssmartphonesspellingsoftwarespeaking

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