Business English Pet Peeves

I have a few pet peeves. I prefer that shirts, even t-shirts and Hawaiian shirts, to be tucked in. I know it is silly, but for me it goes along with pants hanging about the knees showing off one’s Batman underwear.

In business speech and written communication, there are a few terms and spellings we use incorrectly that drive me a bit, pardon the pun, batty. Let’s look at a few.

Pronunciation versus Enunciation – I was quite taken back – or should it be “aback?” – one day when I heard a speech instructor tell a student that he “enunciated” the word hypodermic, a word the student had a rough time pronouncing before, quite clearly. “Pronunciation” is to pronounce a word correctly. With over 130 versions of English alone, not counting accents and regional colloquialisms, the “correct” pronunciation will vary by region and country. When teaching American Business English, I do not correct accents, but I do correct pronunciation.

To “enunciate” is to be able to convey a thought in a clear manner through speech; to make an idea understandable and the proper usage of language for the region or country.

Colloquialisms versus Accent I heard many a student complain about foreign national professors, especially those from India or Pakistan, who are hard to understand because of their accents. For many English may be their second, third or fourth language. Most non-native speakers of English use language and sounds that are endemic to the home language. This may also be true for native speakers of English. Then again, my Brooklyn accent can be a bit overwhelming to some.

There are sounds in English, such as the “th” and “k” that are not found in some other languages. English does not have the equivalent to the rolling “r” in Castilian Spanish or the hard, in the back of your throat “ch” in Hebrew and Arabic. This is where a good lesson in active listening comes in to play.

A colloquialism is language specific to a region or nation. It took me a while to understand that in Britain a “boot” meant the truck of the car and not the foot apparel. Depending on where in the United States you reside, a non-alcoholic carbonated beverage may be called a soda, a pop or a soda pop. Unless, of course, you are from Atlanta, Georgia, the home of Coca Cola, where anything colored brown is a “Coke.” In New York City a black cherry soda is referred to as a “red soda” (usually bottle by Dr. Brown’s/J.R. Bottling company) and a chocolate soda is referred to as an “egg cream,” though there are neither eggs nor cream in the mixture; however, never as a “Yoo-Hoo,” which is a chocolate soda with no real chocolate.

Podium versus Lectern – This is an easy one but easily confused. You stand on the podium and stand behind the lectern.

I was giving a presentation a few weeks back on Gendered Communication when I was asked by the hostess to stand behind the podium for a sound check. I assumed she meant the lectern and I quietly corrected her.

Same Sound, Different Spelling – We have all had our arguments concerning which word one meant to use in a discussion or written paper. The other day, for example, I used “vain” when I meant to use “vein.” Both my “editor” and I missed the error. It took a reader to point out the mistake. I have a friend who is head of Human Resources for a small manufacturing firm who will reject an applicant if they use the word “too” or “two” when they meant “to.” For me it is the misuse of “its,” the possessive versus “it’s” the contraction for it is or it has.

Then there is “who” versus “whom.” I know the rule, but still have a rough time with this one. Both are pronouns but “whom” is used when an object of the verb. 

The Oxford Comma – This one is the most perplexing for me. Depending on who I am writing the column for depends if I place the silly comma before the “and” in a series of three or more, or not. If I am asked to write in the Associated Press (AP) style, let’s say for the newspaper for which I write, then it is “no.” For those articles where the use of the comma would make the meaning clearer, I add the comma. Take the time to read “Eat, Shoots and Leaves.”

I am sure you have your own language problems and I would like to hear from you with your own “pet peeves.”

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About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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