Is the age of sloppy e-mail language really over?


When people are losing their jobs, correct dress and correct usage of words seem like a good insurance policy, writes LUCY KELLAWAY

LAST WEEK I received a text message from a colleague that read: “I, sadly, will be late for our meeting; the Underground is running with long delays.”

I gazed at this message for some time. The fact that this young man was going to be late was of little interest; the fact that he had used one full stop, two commas and one semicolon to tell me so was of very great interest indeed. If a 26-year-old sends elaborately punctuated text messages, does this herald the end of an era? Could it be, I wondered, that the lower-case, hey-there, c-u-l8r age of business language is over?

One electronic swallow doesn’t make a summer, but the very next day another swallow winged its way across my computer screen. It was an e-mail from the UK head of internal communications at Google, formerly the coolest company in the world. It did not begin “yo lucy!”, or even “hey there”. Instead it started: “Dear Ms Kellaway”.

It proceeded to issue a civil invitation to speak at an event and finished: “I look forward to hearing from you.” The message was signed off “Yours sincerely”, followed by the man’s full name.

If Google employees have forsworn the language of the internet and are now composing e-mails in the manner recommended by Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, something must be shifting somewhere.

To find out how deep this new punctiliousness runs, I have just carried out some research and come up with startling results. I examined the latest 100 unsolicited e-mails that have arrived in my in-box from readers, and graded them for style, punctuation and formality. I then compared the results with those of a similar test I conducted for a column I wrote in 2000.

The results prove beyond reasonable doubt that the pendulum has swung away from slouchy informality towards correct usage. In 2000, more than a quarter of e-mails were entirely written in lower case.

In the recent batch only one e-mail shunned the capital letter, and that came not from a young techie but from a man who had worked on Wall Street in the 1960s. As his use of language was otherwise impeccable I am inclined to think that the reason for the absence of capitals was that the gentleman was having difficulty operating the shift key.

In my earlier audit there was a rich variety in e-mail sign-offs, but almost all were ugly. One of the most common was “rgds”, a hateful little abbreviation, insulting in its implication that the writer is too busy to make three extra key strokes for the recipient’s benefit.

Yet in the 2009 group there was only one “rgds”, and instead “Yours Sincerely”, even “Yours Faithfully” have made walloping comebacks.

There has been a corresponding return to favour of the surname, which in 2000 was little in evidence. Nearly 40 per cent of the recent e-mails addressed me as “Ms Kellaway”, “Mrs Kellaway” or “Lucy Kellaway”, and before the name came my very favourite form of address, which is “Dear”. This is firmly back in fashion, while “Hi” and “Hey”, which were both in vogue in 2000, are on the way out.

The fact that the pendulum is swinging back now is no surprise. Just as recession encourages people to put on ties (as I wrote last week), it also makes them look more kindly on the capital letter and the semicolon. When people are losing their jobs, correct dress and correct usage of words seem like a good insurance policy.

Indeed, the only places where sloppiness is marching on unchecked are those that are sheltered from the market economy. Last month two local councils in the UK declared that they were getting rid of all apostrophes in street signs to “avoid confusion”.

A spokesman from Birmingham City Council explained that Kings Norton should no longer have an apostrophe as the place no longer belonged to the king. Which is one of the feeblest arguments I have ever heard. Off with the man’s head.

By contrast, the private sector is falling over itself to talk posh and the more endangered the industry, the posher its executives are talking.

The result, alas, is not entirely good, since when one tries to be more elaborate with language than one’s education permits, one ends up sounding like a fool.

A sorry example of this is the new front page of the Goldman Sachs website, which has been redesigned to show a picture of an icy fjord. “Uncertain but not uncharted,” it says. Then the text goes like this: “The current financial crisis and its economic repercussions must be unprecedented – so many people now seem to characterize it that way.

“However, many of the events of the last year or so have, in fact, been with precedence within the span of many market participants’ careers.”

In this pea soup of words it is quite hard to glimpse any sense at all. There is a basic confusion between singular and plural and a less basic one between “precedents”, which was what the bank surely meant to say, and “precedence”, which means a ceremonial order of rank and is something else entirely.

I think what Goldman was driving at was something like this: everyone says this financial crisis is unprecedented, but lots of our employees have experienced similar things before. If so, one of two conclusions follows. Either the bank is talking through its hat, or some of its employees must be well over 100. – (Financial Times service)