Correct People’s Writing, Not Their Speech

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Poor communication should be corrected. But does that mean all kinds of communication? And how do we correct, uh, correctly?

Matt, Chris, and I spend a fair amount of time writing about writing here. And we encourage all lawyers who care about good writing to take that passion not just down the ladder to subordinates, but up it to superiors as well, rather than just going along to get along.

But what about correcting how people speak? If someone in your office says, “Tom and Kate and me are going to lunch,” should you correct that person? This is a very tricky question. My advice is to just let that “me” slide right on by.

What’s the difference?

When you edit or revise someone else’s writing in a professional (or academic) setting, the writer will generally take your efforts as driven by your pursuit of professionalism. Everyone knows lawyers have to write a lot, and that law offices produce a lot of written documents. So there’s an acceptance of the need for revision and correction.

But if you let your love of proper grammar and usage spill over into correcting how people speak, that willingness to be corrected will be conspicuous by its absence. And you will be thought of like the partner (and associate) depicted here.

It’s complicated

What’s the difference between correcting the spoken vs. written word? If we write well, we should speak well too, right?

But experience (I’m old, so I have some) says no. When people write, in particular as part of their work, there’s a professional detachment between the writer and what he wrote. If you were an apprentice plumber, you’d be okay with your work being inspected by a master plumber. Even if you really throw your heart and soul into being a great plumber, that inspection comes with the job, and you understand you have to cope with being corrected.

But when people speak (even lawyers and other legal professionals who really need to communicate well verbally), that detachment is lacking, even if the subject is work. When we speak, it feels personal, every time. Our speech is not analogous to a cat-5 cable that sends data back and forth. When we speak, every word not only represents us, it’s almost as if every word is part of us. If someone corrects us, it feels like we’re back in middle school and a bully has knocked us down and stapled a “kick me” sign to our back.

It’s why people who don’t write well don’t seem to care (it’s just for work, after all), but people who fear they don’t speak well will join Toastmasters or pay good money for stuff that will supposedly help them sound more impressive.

So if you go to work and delight in correcting others’ speech, you’ll be reviled for it. You don’t really want that, do you?

Every rule needs an exception

There are a few limited exceptions to my “just let it go” advice. If you are running an organized program to help improve new lawyers or law students, and your advice will be given in the formal context of mock trials or appellate arguments, that’s different. But try to couch your criticism in positive terms rather than negative ones.

The best way to help improve the level of verbal communication at work is to set a good example. And if people like you (gasp), they will, without knowing it, start to act (and speak) like you do.

(image: bald man with snobbish expression from Shutterstock)

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