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Grammar and Leadership

April 1, 2015

GrammarI admit that I have pet peeves when it comes to American English. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert – I couldn’t diagram a sentence if my life depended on it. And I wasn’t much of a writer as a student. I have read incessantly all my life though, and I suppose that along with being raised in a fairly literate environment – good public schools, universities and professional work – has given me a “good ear” for what is right and wrong when it comes to American English. My work in engineering, technical sales and contract negotiation gave me a bit of a feel for clarity of meaning, though not necessarily an appreciation of brevity.

So I was quite interested to read an essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “There Is No ‘Proper English‘” by Oliver Kamm. I especially connected to the Wikipedia editor who changed “no fewer than 47,00 instances where contributors to the online encyclopedia had written ‘comprised of’ rather than ‘composed of.'” Yes! That’s my pet peeve too. The “improper” use of the word comprises drives me a bit crazy. Another “blunder,” also mentioned in the essay, is the often heard “irregardless.” There is no such word. The word you’re looking for is regardless. And there are others, of course. What are yours?

Kamm’s point in the article is that things change — including usage. Not only that, many of our “rules of language” are actually myths or old wives’ tales. His view is that if it is in general use, then that is what the language is. He goes on to say that, “Language sticklers typically depict themselves as defenders of tradition against the insidious forces of cultural relativism.” Now that hit home.

I’ve been saying the same thing about leaders who don’t get that changes have occurred and are occurring in our business world – they are the defenders of mediocrity — the status quo. Things have changed. Some very basic things have changed; so get over it and move on. Stop trying to defend the traditional way of doing things and get with the new program.

Well, it seems to me that I have to apply the same philosophy when it comes to language, right? I can’t be a stickler defending tradition in one area and be an advocate for continuous change in another. At least it seems to me to be unlikely that such a position is defensible. When it comes to leadership and being able to live with continuous change, we might take a lesson from the lexicographers. Track what is actually “going on” and recognize the cultural shifts. Uber is changing the world of “rides for hire.” BuzzFeed is changing the world of publishing and news. Someone, somewhere is fixin’ to change your business world too. Seeing the patterns, accepting the change and adopting a flexible attitude is one of the things leadership is about.

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