Saturday, February 7, 2009


The successes of President Barack Obama, former presidents Ronald Reagan and Jack Kennedy as well as some of my favorite business leaders that include the likes of Jack Welch, Hugh McColl, Lee Iacocca and many, many more have validated that effective communication skills top the list of personal qualities and skills demanded and admired by Americans and citizens of the world. These leaders know/knew how to dynamically articulate their visions, construct strong and strategic relationships, build a consensus for their agendas and among many other positive attributes, attract those that would be motivated by and help build on those ideals and goals.

You think that these folks are fluent in English (aka The language) and know how to write, spell and create important thoughts. You bet!

As a Human Resources and recruiting professional I have seen and interviewed perhaps thousands of candidates from entry level factory workers to professionals and corporate executives over the course of my career. The one constant in all their position descriptions was the essential requirement and skill that they be able to communicate individually and as a member of a Team and build a consensus for their mission and goals.

I see young people every day that have consciously failed to put together the basic building blocks of learning and haven’t a clue about communication including spelling and grammar. Far worse, they really don’t care. Instead, they have built a whole sub culture of alternative English (including Ebonics), encrypted slang and modern texting that has precluded the correct usage of the English language in style and substance. Not that I am an ultimate correct practitioner of the Queen’s English. Quite the contrary. I couldn’t tell you the difference between an inflectional plural suffix and syntactic subclasses but I can spell, put sentences together that are understood by my targeted audiences and many others of those cultures that comprehend and appreciate the English language. While I do have the basics down, I am far from perfect in my use of The Language.

It would appear that many of our younger generation share that imperfection to an even greater degree. And just when these young folks are teetering on the brink of a total naïveté and lack of fluency in The Language (mostly because of pure laziness and a cultural affectation), along comes Diane Mapes, a witty and very talented writer from the Seattle area who in a fit of hopeful satire may be letting our lesser educated brothers, sisters, sons and daughters off the hook for their failure to appreciate or learn the basics of The Language.

Mapes in her recent MSNBC posting, Fastidious Spelling Snobs Pushed Over the Edge, invokes research done at Oxford University in England who in her estimation have allegedly come to the conclusion that, “The ability to spell may have more to do with our DNA than the amount of time we spend with our nose in a dictionary.”

Well, the research (not without controversy) she strategically and thoroughly takes out of context was the discovery that the gene that is believed to be associated with Dyslexia is also connected with reading ability. Well, we know that Dyslexia is a learning disability that primarily manifests as, “a difficulty with written language, particularly with reading” so can easily assume that this also segways to spelling and other written language skills (no brainer). Mapes uses this to anchor her comments which are mostly without merit.

Mapes in a pure entitled Kum By Ya (do you have a hanky?) spirit takes special pains to quote one Gary Cohen, a self professed executive coach (?) from Minneapolis who admitted to being, “hassled about his spelling for years” and then stated character issues had nothing to do with his inability to spell. Cohen states, “I didn’t have a choice about being a good speller,” he says. “It wasn’t about lack of effort or practice or laziness, which is what it can often be associated with. I grew up with learning differences. My daughter has them too.” Well, we certainly can sympathize with Cohen and his daughter, but he doesn’t represent the vast majority of folks that just don’t get it and have failed to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered them.

Having said that there are many folks who have conquered this disability and are leaders in their field. They are too numerous to list here though that list would surely include some of my favorite folks like Richard Branson, Anthony Hopkins, Stephen J. Cannell, John Irving, Jay Leno, Charles Schwab and many more. Yes, they can spell.

Now I can’t carry the bags for those folks but when I was a child I had what they called mirror reading (they now call it dyslexia) where I would literally read from right to left and then put the sentences back in their proper place from left to right. I also reversed words and letters. I can only assume that I would have really lit up a cat scan. An alert third grade teacher at St. Marks School of Texas in Dallas recognized my problem, engaged the appropriate reading regimens (lots of phonics) and in a matter of months I was reading, comprehending and spelling correctly. Though I really didn't know I had a problem, once discovered, I had a choice to do something and did. By the way I was an excellent student up to that point. I have no idea what happened since then….

The main purpose of Mape’s surprising and provocative post was to report that factors such as stress brought on by the bad economy, loss of jobs, foreclosures, war, and just life itself have prompted some folks (generally those fluent in The Language) to hold others more accountable for their use of English to what she fashions - an excess. Mapes castigates anyone whether professor or citizen who criticizes someone for improper spelling or grammar labeling them as “fastidious”, a “snob”, “word nerd”, a “spelling, grammar and punctuation snob”, “word warrior” and “control freak” among other less than complimentary terms.

It would certainly appear that this and other crises are reflecting that our society is ever devolving our ability to accept the blame for our own failures and shortcomings thereby diminishing the potential for improvement and the reversal of any bad situation. Younger people in ever increasing numbers appear to be squandering educational or business opportunities and then wallowing in self pity when they can’t qualify for that next great job or an advanced degree. Recruiters and HR folks can write reams on their experiences in these areas.

These failures generally have nothing to do with intellectual capacity or overall ability to engage these important tasks. Rather we appear to be engaged in an “eat and be merry” and “live for the moment” mentality that invokes Aesop and his fable of the ant and the grasshopper which was borrowed from the ancients and even co-opted by Walt Disney, Jim Henson and even author W. Somerset Maugham. The moral of this story though some modern versions have incorporated some diabolical twists is that those who are industrious and persevere and plan for the future will prevail while those who do not will ultimately fail and in extreme cases, die. One recent politically correct version has the destitute grasshopper taking the ant to court and ultimately charging him with discrimination and claiming all his assets basically because he was successful…

Whether it’s spelling, grammar or your own morality play, hold yourself to the highest possible standard as you will be the ultimate benefactor of that effort. Failure to develop and practice good communication skills will sit you on the bench forever. You will always be junior varsity wondering why you weren’t afforded the opportunity to pursue your goals…… why you weren’t a success.

Reality is that many folks for whatever reason chose not to make communication and language skills a priority. Their window opened and closed almost without pause and they didn’t even know it happened. The rush of air they heard and the resultant vacuum was their future rushing to meet that next person who chose the path of opportunity. Bottom line: We have always been in control and responsible for all aspects of our lives. Fat Friends don’t make us fat, abusive relatives will not make us indecisive and a recessive gene will not ultimately deny most of us the ability to spell.

So, what’s it going to be – ant or grasshopper?


Ned Buxton

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