A recent Wall Street Journal article called out bad grammar in the workplace as a serious issue. John Coates's recent book, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, on the neurobiology of risk taking in business calls out our hormones as an issue. Coates deals with very high flyers indeed, having been a derivatives trader on Wall Street and now a Cambridge University neuroscientist. The subject is a bit bigger than grammar, and his conclusions about how understanding our neurobologically wired risk-taking behavior can lead to very great rewards are fascinating. But is the risk of being misunderstood because of bad grammar one worth taking? Probably not!
The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust is an absolutely amazing look at what makes people, mainly young men, ready to bet enormous amounts of money on minute changes in the numbers that measure financial markets. Those numbers often don't even represent money, precisely; instead they may measure probability or aggregates of data. Yet the economies of nations, world trade, the price of a house, and our retirement income all can depend on the wolflike seizure of opportunity or the doglike cowering of young men in response to fluctuating numbers on a screen.
Dr. Coates was not always a doctor; at one point he ran a derivatives trading desk on Wall Street. He saw young traders transform when faced with success and failure. Success could fuel an explosion of confidence, triggering daredevil high-flying risk taking and brinksmanship that could yield huge rewards, while failure could unleash not a wolf but a dog, whipped and whimpering away from risk, averse to taking chances. Significantly, he observed that male hormones seem to have a lot to do with this. Women did not react the same way. And yes, it's about testosterone levels. Surges are triggered by success; ebbs by failure. But not in women.
Coates went on to do solid research that backed up his hunch. His book not only discusses the phenomenon and consequences of "dog and wolf" on Wall Street but also looks at the role of biology and risk taking throughout our life. Nor does he excoriate those who work the Street; he points out that understanding our biology is important. Very important.
Coates's subjects and readers are very familiar with the The Wall Street Journal, no doubt, which is where Sue Shellenbarger wrote a very entertaining article, "This Embarrasses You and I," calling out workplace grammar as a growing issue of contention, especially across generational divides. In the article Shellenbarger points out that many managers deplore younger employees mistakes and misuse of language, while she notes what I so often discuss in my posts here: that grammar rules are contextual, and what is appropriate in memos and corporate publications or client communications may not work on twitter and other social media, in texts, or on chat. As someone who writes about, thinks about, and argues about grammar I admit I was delighted to read the following:
In workplace-training programs run by Jack Appleman, a Monroe, N.Y., corporate writing instructor, "people are banging the table," yelling or high-fiving each other during grammar contests he stages, he says. "People get passionate about grammar," says Mr. Appleman, author of a book on business writing.
The WSJ piece also includes a really wonderful sentence to convince doubters about the need for a serial comma.
What are the risks of using bad grammar at work? They range from 25-cent fines from a manager for each use of "like" at some companies to losing major clients, confusing the customers, and messing up marketing materials so badly that expensive reprints are required--if they can even be done in time.
The rewards of using bad grammar seem to be pretty much nil: no surge of testosterone when one makes a subject/verb agreement error or uses the wrong word and embarrasses one's company or oneself. The risks are pretty clear.
Whether one is riding the rollercoaster of success and failure, dog and wolf, or merely writing a sales pitch, words matter. They always have.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.