Do you get bad grammar off people?

I blame my grandmother. She loved providing real-time feedback on my grammar and her favorite was the difference between ‘off’ and ‘from’.

If I innocently reported to her that I had received something off someone, she would immediately respond that “you get fleas off people, but you get things from them”.


While I am a huge fan of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (and have a well thumbed copy on my bookshelf), I am also sympathetic to Stephen Fry’s tirade on language purists.

However, there is a happy medium.

Today well written, simple, plain English is the exception. Too often we descend to the lowest common denominator where we all proactively leverage robust, strategic solutions to global world-leading paradigm shifts.

Worse, in a deluge of meetings and conference calls we are routinely subjected to a verbal assault of meaningless phrases and buzzwords. This unscientific blog survey captured a few of the more common ones, although some of my personal favorites like ‘grok’ and ‘running it up the flagpole’ didn’t make the list.

Dan Pallotta put this very well in a post he published on the Harvard Business Review in December:

I’d say that in about half of my business conversations, I have almost no idea what other people are saying to me. The language of internet business models has made the problem even worse. When I was younger, if I didn’t understand what people were saying, I thought I was stupid. Now I realize that if it’s to people’s benefit that I understand them but I don’t, then they’re the ones who are stupid.

So, what is the point of this post?

I want to promote a balanced approach to language.  Let’s encourage each other to speak and write in plain, simple English and avoid the buzz word madness.

In that spirit here are two bonus links:

The joy of… language

During a meeting earlier this week I spotted a well thumbed copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves on an office book shelf.  This discovery sparked an enjoyable conversation on the power of language. Of course if you’re working in Public Relations then language is occupational currency.

Later in the week I was absent mindedly browsing Netflix and happened upon an old gem, the entire series of Yes Minister.

For the uninitiated “Yes (Prime) Minister” is a 30 year old BBC television comedy that follows the career of a Minister in her majesty’s government (and later as he assumes the role of Prime Minister) and his daily struggle with the powers of the civil service.

If you love language then this is something you should watch.

“No buts,” the Minister snapped. “All I get from the Civil Service is delaying tactics.”

“I wouldn’t call Civil Service delays “tactics”, Minister,” Sir Humphrey replied.  “That would be to mistake lethargy for strategy.”

In today’s climate of “transparency” and “plain English” the use of language in the series – purely for the sake of obfuscation and deceit – is truly a joy!

From a PR perspective there’s an interesting potential parallel between the Minister’s relationship with the Civil Service; and a dysfunctional client-agency relationship.  (Obviously this doesn’t reflect any of my client relationships when I worked on the agency side, or god forbid my agency relationships since I crossed the table :-))

Witness a memo between two Civil Servants:


A Minister’s absence is desirable because it enables you to do the job properly:

  1. No silly questions
  2. No bright ideas
  3. No fussing about what the papers are saying

One week’s absence, plus briefing beforehand and debriefing and catching up on the backlog on his return, means that he can be kept out of the Department’s hair for virtually a fortnight.

Furthermore, a Minister’s absence is the best cover for not informing the Minister when it is not desirable to do so – and for the next six months, if he complains of not having been informed about something, tell him it came up while he was away.

Substitute “Minister” for Client and “Department” for Agency :-)

Watch the series or better yet, exercise your mind and buy the books which give you time to savor the plots, the thinking, but most of all the language.