how to correct a colleague’s annoying writing habits

A reader writes:

I am writing about a habit of my colleague that really gets on my nerves. When my colleague is speaking, he is prone to prefacing pretty standard words or phrases with expressions like “what I like to call” or “as I like to say.” Although I find this frankly silly when he is speaking aloud, I don’t really mind. However, he also writes professional emails that way. Indeed, pretty standard idiomatic expressions, jargon or even non-jargon words are encased in quotation marks at a rate of at least one word or phrase per paragraph. It’s unprofessional, and it has become a major pet peeve of mine!

I’m much younger than this colleague, but I am soon to receive a promotion to be his manager. What should I do? Should I “ignore” the quotation marks? Should I make a suggestion? If I say something, how do I do so without sounding condescending? Should I wait until I become his boss to “correct” this “faux pas”?

Well, you are about to become what I like to call “in charge of him,” so that will make it much easier to address this — but yes, definitely wait until you’re his boss to do it. Because at that point, you’ll have standing to comment on it, and it will be a directive rather than merely a suggestion.

If you’ll be reviewing any written material from him before it goes out, that will be the easiest way to do it — send back edits that include guidance on this. For instance: “Please remove the two usages of ‘as I like to say’ since they’re unnecessary” and “lots of extraneous quotation marks in here — can you remove other than for actual quotes?” If you see it in his written materials after that, bringing it to his attention again and say, “Could you be vigilant about watching out for these things in the future?”

Of course, if you’re only seeing it in emails, there’s less of a natural opening for the feedback, but you should still just be direct. For instance: “I’ve noticed two things in your emails that I wanted to ask you to watch out for.”

Here’s hoping that he doesn’t replace this habit with random capitalization, which I find Even Worse.

{ 215 comments… read them below }

  1. ChristineSW

    Here’s hoping that he doesn’t replace this habit with random capitalization, which I find Even Worse.

    I have Facebook friends who do that, and it drives me bananas!

    1. fposte

      Then there’s the weird thing of capitalizing every single word. That must be almost as hard work to do as it is to read!

            1. HR Competent

              I had a guy that worked for me capitalize every word. It did drive me nuts and I did correct. He was a great worker otherwise.

              1. anon -2

                How about the propensity of some to write a 200 word sentence?

                “I would really like to work at your company it sounds interesting because I see you are in the news lately and have a lot of great products and also you have a good culture there that I’d like to see and talk with you so please call me anytime at the number 212-555-xxxx and I will answer but leave a message if I cannot pick up I promise I will get back to you thanks ”

                Don’t laugh. I received a cover letter that was written in similar fashion. And, no, he didn’t get an interview.

          1. Lacey

            My husband has a habit of slipping Into Title Case when he wants to Really Make A Point, or make something Look Important.

            Drives. Me. Nuts.

            Luckily he gets me to proof read important things and every time I give him a little lesson on the use of capitals. Maybe by the time he retires he will have stopped doing it.

      1. Ellie H.

        I think that there is a psychological reason for this, actually, in some cases. I’ve heard of a few people for whom this is the case. Specifically I think that it may be one of the forms that a compulsion takes for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. However I have no doubt that many people who do it just like to, for some unknown reason.

          1. Ellie the EA

            My husband is dyslexic and does randomly capitalize words in emails and texts. I think since his friends have gotten used to it, they probably don’t even notice anymore.
            When it’s something important though, he asks me to proofread it.

            1. TL

              I always just assume German was their first language :D

              I didn’t know that could help with dyslexia, though.

            2. Chinook

              If your husband randomly capitalizes words when typing, there is an option in Word that allows you to change the capitalization between sentence case, lower case, upper case, capitalize each word and toggle case. It is also great for when you type a bit and then realize you left the Caps Locks on.

        1. Bea W

          I have a co-worker who does this. A manfestation of OCD would totally make sense as an explaination in his case. The problem is it clashes against my own possible manifestation of OCD, the overwhelming need to use proper capitalization. Nothing good comes out of reviewing each other’s documents. I send back his with proper capitalization, and he returns my documents with Random Capitalization.

      2. nyxalinth

        There used to be someone on Livejournal who had the persona–including in her everyday life–of a pseudo-Disney style Princess. Her entire bio on the journal–which was extremely long–and all her journal entries Were Written Like This. She was also very pretentious, arrogant, and pompous. I forget her name, but her website was still up a few years ago.

          1. Anonymous

            Easy way: write it in Word and then use “change case” to select “title case”.

            Depends on whether she was doing it delibrately or subconciously though…

    2. Rex-a-ford

      As someone who fights this awful problem with his own typing. I don’t know how I picked it up, but it happens unless I think about it as I type. This means I really have to proof-read emails before I send them. Here’s hoping I’ll break the habit.

    3. C.

      It’s an annoying meme (that I’m sometimes guilty of!), but I’ve always thought it was a reflection of how people actually speak when trying to emphasize a point by, um, emphasizing each word of their sentence. I guess it’d be nice if they could just use their words, but maybe it’s Just Not Possible.

      I also feel like maybe it’s an outgrowth of the use of scare quotes to emphasize “certain” phrases.

      1. dot

        I think David Foster Wallace has something to do with the popularity of that rhetorical device. I like it a lot too, but sparingly and appropriately. I also love David Foster Wallace endlessly, and nothing about his writing is sparing, so he’s exempt from that rule.

      2. Rana

        Yeah, that’s when I’ll use it, but I always have a sense of doing it with my tongue at least partly in cheek. For me, it’s a way of getting around the lack of tone and facial expression in casual written speech.

        I consider it very informal, though, as a written equivalent of casual, slightly lazy speech among close friends. I wouldn’t do it in a work setting at all.

        1. Judy

          Whenever I see unexpected words capitalized, I think of Winnie the Pooh.

          And I do agree it’s use would be only for very casual communications, not business communication.

          1. Anonymous

            You know how it is in the Workplace. One can’t have Anybody coming into one’s Office. One has to be what I like to call Careful.

    4. jgo

      My boss does the random capitalization thing! I am trying to be patient, but it drives me nuts. I feel overly critical when he asks me to proof something and I give it back with all kinds of simple capitalization, spelling, and grammar edits. And not just a few–usually 2-3 per sentence. I need to brush up on my grammar — then maybe I’d feel more secure.
      Or is there a way I can gently educate him?

      1. Editor

        I suppose you could find various grammar lessons (Grammar Girl is considered reputable, as is Bill Walsh and John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say, Jan Freeman, Ben Zimmer, Grammarphobia and others). Whether your boss actually wants to learn this stuff when you’re there to correct it is another story.

        That said, I wonder where these writers pick up these habits. I learned capitalization in school, of course, but the practices were reinforced by what I read. It seems like some people simply don’t notice what is printed and therefore don’t absorb the rules. Some people don’t read much, and I’m sure that’s a contributing factor, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.

  2. fposte

    Thank you, OP, for “sharing” the “misery” in that last “paragraph.”

    Where are the professional emails going? I can’t tell if they’re just informal intra-office correspondence or if they’re something more formal and/or external. I wouldn’t worry about this stuff in yer basic intra-office email from somebody you regularly talk to anyway.

    On the self-editing side, my experience is that people who express themselves with a lot of prefacing and parenthetical phrases often don’t effectively self-edit to remove those, so for formal writing you may just need to trim him down with an edit. On the other hand, the quotation marks are pretty easy to quantify–you can simply limit his quotes to situations where he’s actually quoting, or give him a quota (sorry) of one additional use per document so that he spends it wisely.

    1. Ellie H.

      LOL at “quota”!

      I know I have a tendency to preface my remarks unnecessarily and add lots of qualifiers and I do try pretty hard to edit these out. There is a balance between politeness and effectiveness in writing.

      1. NutellaNutterson

        I definitely edit my qualifiers because I have a tendency to start emails with “I’m just writing to say…” or similar. If I’m just writing to say something, I need to actually just say it!

      2. Rana

        Yup. I figure it’s a combination of being female, having gone to grad school, and being too aware of complexity most of the time. The good thing is, it’s easy to prune out the extra qualifiers later when you know you need to.

        Example: It’s a combination of being female, having gone to grad school, and being aware of complexity, but it’s easy to prune out the qualifiers.

    2. FiveNine

      I also was wondering whether these are informal internal emails (which are a professional correspondence of sorts) or formal correspondence going out to clients, for example. Not that OP couldn’t say something about internal email once she’s his manager, of course. It’s just that if it is primarily internal email, or even email really only to her, it might seem to the offender to be a really specific small/petty item for a new manager to latch onto first thing of the bat (for possible weird

    3. Natalie

      Some memoirist (Augusten Burroughs, maybe?) tells an anecdote about being similarly restricted in using exclamation points – only one per paragraph.

      1. AP

        I do that too – I’m tempted to use too many of them otherwise. In fact, I was just writing in my update for an AAM question and I went back and deleted about 5 exclamations (“!”)

        1. Pussyfooter

          *Without* the audible cues of speech: I Want To Use All These “WONDERFUL” Things–a lot more!!!!!<;')
          (I love semi-colons; and parentheses)

          I really miss the info passed through vocalization.

        2. Jessa

          I get nails on chalkboard willies when parentheses do not balance. I’m a bit OCD and if I’m typing somewhere that doesn’t allow post blogging editing, I always end up cringing if I miscount.

      2. Anonymous

        Ugh, we have a new coworker who leaves notes all the time and uses two or three exclamation points after random sentences.

        “David, see if you can figure out [this thing I should have known how to do since day one]. Poland Spring refill bottles delivered!!!”

      3. louise

        I loathe extraneous exclamation points. My mother-in-law (who graduated valedictorian of both her high school and college classes) is a professional abuser of the poor exclamation point on Facebook. Sometimes, in my imagination, I shake her and say, “If you need that many exclamation marks to make your point, your vocabulary isn’t strong enough. Get a dictionary and a thesaurus and quit relying on punctuation to express yourself!”

    4. OP

      Thanks for the great question and suggestions.

      I been CC’ed on enough of his external emails to know that the quotation marks are an issue in those as well.

  3. Vee

    I had a coworker that did the same thing with the crazy number of quotations. It was annoying, yet also hilarious to read out loud with obvious verbal air-quotes around everything. The most inane sentence suddenly sounded very suggestive!

    I finally asked him about it, and he said it was from his police training: assumptions or things that were unverified were put in quotes until they were proven to be true. How that “evolved” into a “chronic habit” in “Wakeen’s” writing “style” continues to elude this author. <- another annoying turn of phrase he used instead of saying "I."

    1. doreen

      ” This author” or ” this writer” is from his police training- everything is written in the third person. He will also probably never write “got out of the car” , because law enforcement always “exits the vehicle” .

        1. Editor

          Those suspects are actors. You have no idea how evil thespians are until you read police reports day in and day out, describing what all those actors did.

  4. Cruciatus

    I will admit that for a day or 2 after spending many months in Germany I was capitalizing my nouns and lower casing my Is (as they do there). But at least there was a reason!

  5. Cat

    One of the partners I work with – who is otherwise a wonderful writer – has a tendency to do this with quotation marks, which once led to him (totally unawares) e-mailing a client to say that he was glad their story had a “happy ending.”

    Fortunately, the culture at our office is that everyone of any seniority level is free to red-line documents at will. He sends me drafts with random quotation marks; I go through and delete them; and everyone is happy.

    1. JMegan

      Yikes, to “happy ending!” Too bad that didn’t make it into the “awkward work moments” thread from the other day… :)

    2. Littlemoose

      Another good suggestion for open threads – unintentionally inappropriate or double entendre comments at work. Hilarity will surely ensue.

      1. V

        When working as a receptionist I once took a message from an insurance adjuster who wanted to follow-up on something. I wrote down this message “Jane Doe from Liberty Mutual. Wants to FU regarding Joe Schmo case”

        They needed clarification. :)

      2. Pam

        I worked at a produce shipping facility one summer. I walked around for god knows how long one day with a post-it note stick to my butt that I’d apparently sat on. The note said “Check with Dale before loading.”

  6. Yup

    I could go either way on the fluff phrasing: it’s distracting and bit tiresome, but not fatal.

    The excessive quotes, however, would drive me utterly bonkers. Like AAM advised, wait for a legit opportunity to edit/proof his writing. Flat out say that use of quotation marks needs to be minimal in professional communications, otherwise the recipient may misread them as sneer/scare quotes and misunderstand his meaning entirely.

    1. Littlemoose

      Agreed. When the OP talks to this employee, it might be helpful for her to point out that unnecessary or inappropriately used quotation marks can add a tone of sarcasm, double entendre, or condescension that the employee likely does not mean to convey. It confuses the tone of the e-mail, and that’s not something you want in your professional communication. Better to leave it out.

      I knew that the OP was going to get a lot of commiseration on this question, because it seems like the commentariat here is generally well-read and exacting, with many in the library and education fields. I’m a grammar and spelling fanatic myself, and I suspect a lot of other commenters are too. Now excuse me while I read this post three times to ensure I have not committed any such errors.

      1. Rana

        I always figure I’m going to make an error on any post commenting on language, myself. It’s Muphry’s Law, after all. (And yes, that is “Muphry,” not “Murphy.”)

      2. OP

        Yup, you outlined the reason why I reserve my frustration for the extra quotation marks rather than the fluff phrasing. My colleague’s key responsibility is to develop partnerships with leaders of other organizations. I feel urgency about this because I don’t want him to offend someone that our organization might need as an ally — and lose a partnership he had worked hard to cultivate — due to misinterpreted quotation marks..

        Littlemoose, we are an education nonprofit.

    2. Lynn Whitehat

      I once got an email from my martial arts instructor with the subject line

      Congratulations on achieving your “black belt”!

      For a few seconds, it really did feel like he was being sarcastic and mocking it, “ha ha, you know you didn’t get the real thing, right?” But then I remembered that’s just how he writes.

      1. CEMgr

        Some poeple think that quotation marks add “emphasis”. Although they Emphatically do not……you need ALL CAPS for THAT. :-o

      2. Elsajeni

        Just the other day I drove past a store advertising that they were:

        Under New “Management”

        Looked at the sign, nodded, said to myself, “I’ve had managers like that.”

        (My favorite of this type of error I’ve ever seen was in the trivia section of Tom Hiddleston’s IMDB page. Sadly, it has since been corrected, but it used to say: Originally auditioned for the role of Thor, but “Kenneth Branagh” felt he was more suited to the role of Loki. It still cracks me up every time I think about it.)

  7. Hous

    Last year, my boss for some reason did weird passive aggressive quotes on Christmas cards for our student workers–“Thank you for “your” hard work!” I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that (although I have no idea what she was going for), and I doubt the students took it badly, but I became increasingly amazed/amused as I saw she’d done it on every single card.

    1. Cat

      There’s someone in my office (an IT person) who ends every e-mail with an ellipses. I can’t help but read e-mails like “Here’s your document with the correct formatting . . . ” as kind of passive aggressively judgy, even though I know it’s not intended.

      1. Anonymous

        I always read emails ending in … as passive aggressively judgy too.

        At my last job, multiple people signed their emails:

        Best regards….

        Name

        It drove me nuts.

        1. A Bug!

          I can offer a new perspective on this. I used to do this in Internet communication when I was in high school. Basically, any sentence that didn’t end in a question mark or an exclamation mark was given an ellipsis. The reason for this, was that I felt that a period was very abrupt, and indicated brusqueness on my part. I didn’t want to come across as too aggressive or authoritarian, like I was dictating something rather than conversing.

          So, it’s possible that this person has difficulty with assertiveness and not that it’s an intentional passive-aggressive thing. You’d know better, of course, given that you actually know the person.

          1. Jazzy Red

            A period is not a form of aggression; it’s the correct punctuation for a declarative sentence. A question mark ends a question, and an exclamation point ends an exclamation.

            Business writing used to be much more formal than it is today. Strunk and White would be spinning in their graves if they could read what passes for professional correspondence these days. I guess Business English just isn’t taught any more.

          2. Kerr

            Me too, although I used them a little more sparingly. Not wanting to come off as too aggressive/assertive, I thought they were just dandy. I also used them as indications that a phrase was something to think about, like a thought trailing off to be pondered… ;)

            In fact, I only recently discovered that some people read ellipses as unfriendly or passive-aggressive. I’d been making an effort to get rid of them anyway, but being aware of that impression helped with the process.

            1. abby

              This is great! I use them occasionally in informal messages to indicate something to consider or ponder, and had no idea that others may read them as passive-aggressive. I will definitely eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, my use of them!

            2. Pussyfooter

              I learned to use them as suggesting continuing thoughts on the stated theme–like pondering–from reading novels. Other than skipped words/sentences in quotations, I thought that was a standard use.

              Today is the first time I’ve heard of it being passive-aggressive, or inappropriate.

              1. Cat

                It’s not inherently passive aggressive or inappropriate but if you’re using it when there’s no logical place for the thought to go, it can read as passive aggressive. Like where’s “here’s the document you asked for . . .” supposed to go? That’s a complete sentence. What are you leaving unsaid?

                Now I know none of this is intended and don’t take offense. But it reads poorly to me.

            3. Julia

              I just went to a really irritating talk where the presenter used a verbal form of ellipses. In almost every sentence he would say “da da da da da”.

              “And then I got a job at the chocolate teapot company and da da da da da I was promoted to President. So I increased teapot production and da da da da da”.

          3. fposte

            It’s also a bit of an oralism, I think, and as such it’s a parallel to uptalk, which is becoming really standard.

              1. Pussyfooter

                **envisions millions of future internet comments in up talk: billions of declarative sentences ending with question marks**
                ::shudders::

            1. Jean

              It’s probably too late to share this kernel of information (not exactly crucial for the orderly continuation of Western civilization–or non-Western either) but uptalk makes me absolutely furious. If a person cares enough to express an opinion, he or she should have enough self-respect to express it as a declarative sentence, a done deal, a solid fact, or an unarguable truism. No cause is well-served by people who express? themselves with uptalk?!
              Grrr. OK, folks, I’m going to bed. AAM, thanks for providing this space for venting.

              1. Julia

                If I’m understanding what you mean by “uptalk”, this can simply be a regional accent. For example, we Kiwis commonly end sentences with a rising tone which, to non-Kiwis, can sound like a question.

                1. Gjest

                  I agree with this. I live in Norway, and am just learning Norwegian. The way I hear their inflection is somewhat of an “uptalk” (I have not heard that phrase, but if it is what Julia says, I know what you mean). Anyway, their English is then often accented with “uptalk.”

                  So unless the person is a native American-English accented speaker, be careful to not be too judgmental on uptalking.

                2. Jean

                  Thanks very much to Julia and Gjest for educating me about patterns of speech in Norway and New Zealand. I had absolutely no idea that uptalk happened anywhere else beyond the world of native American-English speakers. Both of you have enlarged my horizons and reminded me how much the Internet transcends boundaries of national identity and personal experience.

        2. Emily, admin extraordinaire

          At least it was only the signature . . . I have internet friends that write emails . . . blog posts . . . Facebook posts . . .pretty much everything with only ellipses . . . it drives me nuts . . . like they can’t ever finish a thought . . . or they’re just wandering off . . . into the stream of consciousness ether . . .

          1. Hannah

            My sister writes every text… with… constant… ellipses… it makes her sound… sad… all of the time…
            (even when telling me her daughter was born! “We had a girl… Called her … Everything’s great…” How weird is that???)

          2. Be Professional

            I came back from a period of illness and my work had a temp cover. I found emails to clients written like the above. Not happy did not even come close to describing my reaction!

          3. CathVWXYNot?

            I’ll admit to using too many ellipses myself, but a) I’m not that bad and b) at least I always just use three dots. I know someone who writes like this too, except sometimes it’s four dots, sometimes it’s two, sometimes it’s even five. And he does this on his business Twitter and Facebook pages, as well as on personal stuff! I’ve tried to talk to him about this, and about some other errors on his company’s website, but he just doesn’t think it’s important. GAAH.

        3. anon..

          Hmm… I’ve been using ‘anon…’ for a while now as there were too many using variations of anonymous (which I used quite often when I first found this blog) and each time I changed to a variation, someone else used it too! So, I have been ‘anon..’.

    2. Sarah

      Unfortunately, I think some people use quotation marks for emphasis, which is just wrong. She likely was trying to emphasize each individual’s hard work.

      1. TL

        Ug, that kind of phrasing really drives me nuts anyway – like when someone is speaking and they emphasize it such: I really want to thank YOU for YOUR hard work.

        It always sounds borderline condescending to me, like you sound surprised that I did my job well.

      2. Jazzy Red

        She should have left out the quotes and underlined the word “you”. The way it reads now, it could mean just the opposite.

    3. Lalaith

      Augh, my grandma does this! She’ll make it out to “Lalaith” (heh, except she’ll use my real name, if she actually wrote “Lalaith” it would be quite appropriate, though really surprising) or write “Love” Grandma, or, even worse, Love “Grandma”. O_o Grandma, are you trying to tell me something?? (If it were my other grandma, she might be – she’s my dad’s stepmother, which I didn’t know until I was in my teens, and I’m not sure if she knows I know – but I would never even think of her as “Grandma”, and I hope she doesn’t think of herself that way either).

      1. loxthebox

        Completely unrelated, but are you my IRL friend? Because if not, you use the same screen name as someone I know.

  8. JFQ

    These two stylistic tics are strange, but the scare quotes and the “What I like call…” can really make one sound semi-illiterate, as though he or she doesn’t understand normal terminology.

    I second Alison’s call for directness–you can’t end up rewriting all of this person’s correspondence because of two strange, and potentially discrediting, affectations.

    I am curious to know where he picked them up–does anyone have any guesses?

  9. Melissa

    I get emails almost daily from a contact at one of my accounts and he is super liberal with his use of ellipses. I think I counted upwards of 50 dots in one email alone!

    1. fposte

      It’s particularly amusing when the ellipses have random numbers of periods–two, three, four, five, whatever.

        1. De Minimis

          I tend to abuse ellipses sometimes, although it’s something I’m trying to curb. I’ve never done it with work e-mails, though. I think I just enjoyed having a stream-of-consciousness effect. Actually it might be fun to enact that in my work communications.

          “Working on budget template…hope to be done soon. Need information about Dr. Teapot…when did she start working…what is her pay grade?”

          1. LeeD

            See, to me that reads more like a telegram than stream of consciousness.

            Working on budget template STOP hope to be done soon STOP Need information about Dr. Teapot STOP

          2. Pussyfooter

            I wonder what proportion of the population sees ellipses as conveying the suggestion of continuing thought on a subject versus poor writing. Enough people here see it the way I learned it, that I wonder if there is some legitimacy to using them this way after all. (And I learned it from published novels, so….)

            1. fposte

              It’s not a simple either/or, though. People can use exclamation points legitimately to convey excitement and still use them excessively.

            2. Rana

              I will generally use them to either indicate a gap in something quoted, or a trailing thought, as in your example. But one doesn’t want to use too many, because then you give the impression that you’re either too timid to commit to a thought, or you keep losing focus. ;)

  10. A Bug!

    Once you’re in a position to do so, you can explain to this person that it’s not just a personal preference. There is a specific application of quotation marks, and he’s not adhering to that. Not adhering to it reflects poorly on him and the department, in a variety of ways.

    First, and we all know this already (probably), quotation marks are not to be used to emphasize words.

    More to the point, they don’t need to be used to mark jargon that is well-known to the audience; they only need to be used if the audience is not expected to understand the term, and even then, it’s only used in the first instance, where the term is presumed also to be defined for the reader.

    By marking known jargon this way, he’s telling his audience “I do not expect you to understand this term,” and, well, that’s what I like to call “pretentious and condescending,” and also “a waste of everybody’s time.”

    And if he’s marking regular words where the dictionary definition of the word is intended, then that’s confusing for the reader, because the quotation basically say “I’m using this word to mean something other than what it usually means”, but not providing any context, because there is none to provide. It makes the writing difficult to parse because the reader’s being sent on a wild goose chase every time it comes up.

    Rrrrrrrrgh I am so sorry you have to deal with this because it’s putting my head into a spin just reading about it second-hand.

    (As an aside, for anybody who gets rubbed the wrong way about improper quotation marks, I recommend looking up the “Free Pilates” clip from the show Corner Gas. I think it’s on Youtube.)

    1. Chinook

      A Bug! Now that you have proven your “canadianess,” I have to admit I never saw that episode but I could so see it focusing on everyone trying to figure out who Pilates is and what they did to be sent to jail!

    2. Sydney Bristow

      I like this way of presenting the quotes issue. It causes the reader to spend more time than necessary reading and trying to interpret it.

  11. LT

    Well, you are about to become what I like to call “in charge of him”

    This actually made me laugh out loud!

  12. Anonymous

    Even worse than the Random Capitalization is when the kIds on FacEboOk puT raNdom CapItals in tHe mIddLe of wOrds.

    Seriously, how do they even choose which letters get caps? Do they just hit the shift randomly? Do they go back and change some of them for aesthetic balance?

    1. ChristineSW

      I’ve seen that from one or two people MY OWN AGE (late 30s). Yes, I am capitalizing all letters on purpose! :P

  13. Ally

    My boss ends all one or two word emails with …

    Example:
    Me: Please see the attached draft letter.

    My boss’s typical responses are:
    Looks great…
    Thanks…
    Okay…

    I had an intern come and ask me if my boss was upset with her because of this. I’ve thought for years on ways to tell her she is coming off really sarcastic or passive aggressive.

    1. Windchime

      I have someone at work like this. I try to write brief, concise emails because I’m usually asking/talking about technical things and there is no need to get all wordy about it. But I’ll give a couple of bullet points, maybe a screen shot. This person usually responds with “Yes.” Or “Thanks.”

      He’s not a talky guy so I’m not offended, but it seems very terse or something.

      1. Ally

        It’s not the one or two word response, it’s that it’s followed by an ellipsis (…) which reads annoyance or sarcasm.

    2. Anonymous

      Maybe this is your boss trying not to seem too abrupt, having at some point been told Abruptness is Bad.

  14. Mena

    I used to work with someone who loved to use air quotes, made with her fingers, when ever she used some form of jargon when speaking. It was an annoying habit which made me careful of myself and any annoying habits I may have.

    1. Ursula

      Air quotes always remind me of the annoying girl in “Say Anything.” My kids use them, and I remember the movie.

  15. Elizabeth West

    I had a boss who wrote an email about putting up birthday flyers. She wrote,

    Put on the bulletin board for “each on” his special day.

    Um.

    She also made the marketing guy make a giant sign that said, “Welcome To The Greatest [Material Object] Company In The World!”

    Gotta love it.

  16. EngineerGirl

    If this is an otherwise good worker you could be creating a wall where you could be creating a bridge. Not good gor a new manager, especially a younger one. Learn what is most important for achieving corporate goals and focus on that.

    OK, if these are official emails representing the company then correct away. If not, put it on a list of areas for improvement for his performance review. Otherwise this falls into bad boss behavior – getting pissy about something that doesn’t affect the bottom line or quality of life at work.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I agree she should pick her battles, but I don’t think this is bad boss behavior — it’s worth giving feedback on something like this that will affect how he’s perceived.

      1. EngineerGirl

        But she may want to sit until she’s established herself. If she’s having quarterly reviews with her reports this could fall under “behaviors hindering your career”.

        1. JamieG

          If I’m remembering correctly though, according to Alison there shouldn’t be any surprises in a performance review. I’d be super embarassed and irritated if my manager told me in a review that I was doing something annoying/wrong, and had apparently waited months before mentioning it.

          1. EngineerGirl

            A quarterly review is not the same as a performance review. A good manager will meet regularly with reports to check in and give encouragement/correction/direction.

            No, this should not be a deficiency in a performance review. But it could be a thing to improve on.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              I think if you bring it up in a quarterly review, which is still at least semi-formal, it makes it more of a big deal — whereas if you deal with it in the moment when you see it, it’s just routine feedback.

    2. Cat

      I actually have the opposite instinct – bringing this up in a formal, or even semi-formal, meeting setting seems like making it a bigger deal than it warrants at this point. It makes more sense to me to create a culture of editing this kind of written project as one goes along and to provide comments in that context. That said, if this is only happening in e-mails which the employee sends out before his manager has a chance to review them, that’s a different situation. But otherwise, I’d address it as part of your review of individual documents; if it didn’t improve in subsequent documents, then I’d make it part of a review.

  17. Lindsay

    I had a professor in grad school who would always use “what I like to call” phrase. One was actually a phrase he coined, but the rest of them were common to the field. It was so annoying and just reinforced the student perception that he was full of himself.

    1. nyxalinth

      There’s a video online that I like, made with cobbled-together dialog from a video game I like. One of the characters says “It’s downstairs, in a place I like to call downstairs!” I tend to say similar, but only with friends who get it and sure as heck not at work.

  18. Malissa

    OP, once you are his manager can you send him to a business communications class and call it professional development? It sounds like he has many problems and may just benefit from a class. It also comes with a bonus of the advice/criticism not coming from just you.

  19. nyxalinth

    My room mate hates hearing “It’s a case where…” and while individual phrases don’t bother me, certain cutesy (or perhaps “cutesy”) words get under my skin:

    Delish

    Fro Yo (Just say Frozen Yogurt, damn it!)

    Dwell

    Spendy

    YOLO (You Only Live Once)

    1. Not So NewReader

      I get annoyed with the expression “Well, I feel like…”

      “Well, I feel like my coworker was late today.”

      Vs.

      “I think my coworker was late today.”

      When I hear this, I just want to say “When it goes from being a feeling to being an actual thought let me know.”
      When did thoughts and feelings become interchangeable? I missed the memo on that.

      1. the gold digger

        “Well, I feel like my coworker was late today.”

        What do feelings have to do with objective data? Either the coworker was late or she wasn’t. Period. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it.

      1. fposte

        I think this is a good illustration of how some of these can be taste calls that a boss should stay out of, vs. genuine errors that a boss should correct.

      2. Cat

        For some reason, it sounds very “Lord of the Rings” to me – as such, I’d probably look kindly on someone who used it in a business e-mail, but that’s because I’m a nerd.

        1. businesslady

          I think it depends on context–“I dwell in a two-bedroom apartment” is kind of ridiculous, but “no one saw you trip; stop dwelling on it” is fine.

          personally, I cringe at “obvi”/”totes” for “obviously”/”totally” but I also have a bad habit of “ironically” using language I actually hate, & then having it infect my daily speech (see: The Great Overuse-of-‘Dude’ Debacle of 2001).

          …& now I realized I just did the Random Capitalization thing that others were complaining about upthread. whuups! :)

    2. ThursdaysGeek

      I’m not gonna lie, I get annoyed at the phrase “I’m not gonna lie.” When you preface your statement with that, it makes me wonder if you do lie a lot of the time, and you have to emphasize the truthfulness of this particular statement. (I was so tempted to use “truthiness,” but don’t hear that enough for it to annoy me at the same level.)

      1. businesslady

        oh my god, I once went to a presentation where the speaker prefaced so many of his statements with “to be perfectly honest,” the only logical takeaway was that the rest of the talk was full of half-truths & elisions if not outright lies.

        1. Editor

          When I ask a store clerk or a co-worker or someone else a question, and they give me an answer, then come back all flustered and say, “I lied. The shipment will be in next Friday, not Wednesday.” Sometimes the worker will even sound like they’re bragging about lying instead of apologizing for for an error.

          Unless you were trying to deceive me, you didn’t lie — you just made a mistake. Why are you overcorrecting and claiming you lied instead of admitting that you were mistaken?

          1. louise

            Oh, dear. I do that. I think it’s my way of offering some levity to the news I’m about to deliver. I’ll be more conscious of this in the future and try to curtail it.

            Related: I despise the phrase “sorry about your wait. ” I explained to a receptionist that I’d rather hear “I’m sorry we kept you waiting,” or “Thank you for waiting.” When it happens in a fast food context (the most frequent offenders) I hear it as “Sorry about your weight.” Um, yeah, me, too–but I’m still going to eat the delicious, calorie-laden goodies you finally handed over.

      2. Loose Seal

        I worked in a courtroom and you’d hear “to be honest” from the witnesses all the time. I think it was a nervous tic for some of them. But one judge would always cut in and say in a very dry tone, “I hope so; you’re still under oath.”

    3. Pam

      Oh! I hate Fro Yo too. But what’s really been bugging me is the word “cosplay.” I just don’t accept it as a word, and it makes my skin crawl. (I know lots will disagree on that one!)

      1. Windchime

        I’ve never heard “fro yo”. It takes awhile for those types of phrases to make it up here to the Pacific Northwest. And I don’t know what “cosplay” even means.

        Whatevs. Heh.

    4. Gjest

      I really dislike when numbers or letters are substituted in real words. For example, stores named “Gr8 Expectations” or signs that read “We R now Open!”

      It is text-speak creeping into normal writing. I h8 it.

  20. JR

    Once I had to mentor someone to get them into the groove of how things work since I had been around for awhile. I was fine with it, happy to help out. I made him BCC me in on e-mails he sent to the Board, just so that I could give him some feedback on his style. Well, the first e-mail he sent had absolutely NO punctuation or capitalization AT ALL. No salutation, nothing. Just a few sentences that ran together. I was in shock, since this person was basically in a senior role. I had to gently talk to him about it how it would be a good practice to capitalize/address e-mails/use punctuation. Their response was “good idea!! I never though of that!”…. ugh. (and no they were not ESL or anything like that).

    1. Not So NewReader

      Wow. I don’t know which is worse that he did not know this or that no one told him before you.

    2. Chinook

      “Their response was “good idea!! I never though of that!”…. ugh. (and no they were not ESL or anything like that).”

      That sound you hear is their English teachers weeping.

    3. Sydney Bristow

      I reviewed a ton of emails for litigation once and the incredibly wealthy owner of a large company always wrote without capitalization or actual punctuation. He used tons of ellipses and loved to use large comic sans font. Someone who met him described him as someone who speaks jazz, which was a great description for his writing. It’s a good thing he was at the top of the organization because I don’t think that would fly at lower levels!

    4. SevenSixOne

      I’d get emails from my boss at OldJob like, “hey dana can’t make it in tmrw so i need u 2 come in early as poss sry 4 short notice thanks boss”.

      Do people not realize how unprofessional and stupid this makes them look?

      1. Windchime

        I always think of people who write this way as being functionally illiterate. I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment or not. Probably not.

  21. Meg

    I’ve always wondered how to handle stuff like this! A coworker of mine has certain writing habits that irritate the hell out of me, but I’ve always felt it would be nitpicky to point them out (and it probably isn’t my place, as he’s a peer, not a direct report). For example, when he addresses emails to people, he writes “Hey Gang”, or “okey dokey” and it drives me up. a. wall.

    1. jesicka309

      SUP TEAM.

      What up Teapots inc!

      YO! Can you take a squizz at…

      All actual emails from a guy in my department. Yes the first two went out department/company wide. Yes, they are a regular occurance. He writes his emails they way he talks (unprofessionally).

      Another teammate changed her email colours…so when I get an email from her, it’s in a cutesy purple colour. Sure, personality etc. but I now think of her as a little girl, not the 27 year old married woman she is. Hardly the way you want your colleagues to perceive you.

      I need a new job, obviously. :(

        1. Another Sara

          Ha! “Take a squizz” is an Australian phrase meaing “take a look.” I know this because we have one Australian coworker and we are always having him teach us Australian slang. We use this one all the time, now (though only with each other – not with people who wouldn’t know what we are talking about). It comes from a guy named Squizzy Taylor, an Australian mob boss or something. I’m not really sure how you get from mob boss to “take a look,” but whatever.

          1. jesicka309

            I don’t know if it comes from that exatly, but yes, it means take a look. I don’t mind if someone says it to me, but to actually tyope it in an email seems odd to me.

  22. HR Competent

    I didn’t begin business emailing until I was 33. I was guilty of to much preface and big blocks of text.

    Fortunately I realized that people quit reading after the first few lines or ignore it all together.

    Now, I’m all about bullet points.

    1. glennisw

      I worked at one place where the boss’s boss was known to not read anything she had to scroll for. We were all trained to write emails that were only three or four lines long.

    2. IronMaiden

      My last “manager” (“” used deliberately, peeps. :) ) considered bullet points in emails “aggressive”. I think she was of the school of management that played the aggression card as a way of not having to deal with the substance of the email and deal with the real problem.

    3. Windchime

      My first email to my new-at-the-time boss was very succinct, with bullet points. He loved it and actually commented on that.

      I like succinct emails with bullet points (or numbered lists). Big, unnecessarily long story problems cause me to start skimming to find out if there is anything in there that actually applies to me.

      1. IronMaiden

        I agree. Bullet points are great for clarity and brevity. It’s a work email after all, not an exercise in letter writing ettiquette.

  23. Gene

    A former supervisor’s supervisor with whom I was on good terms overused the word “basically.” Finally, at one staff meeting when he had a half-hour presentation, I tallied the number of times he used the word. Afterwards, he asked what I was doing, I told him and gave him the Post-it with all the gates on it. Until the day he moved on to another agency, that Post-it was on his desk and he cleaned up the overuse. He took it with him and I’m willing to bet it’s on his current desk. He spoke at a recent conference I attended and never used the word once.

    1. Not So NewReader

      I had a math teacher that used the word “alright” 149 times in a 45 minute class. Not too many people learned math the way she expected. We used a different avenue of word count. Finally she caught on that we were tracking the number of times she used that word. Angry does not fully describe.

      1. khilde

        You mean the math teacher was angry? It’s too bad, because she could have really used that as a teaching opportunity for the students and a lesson in professional development for herself.

    2. martini

      Basically is the word that I find I overuse when I’m doing trainings, I need to keep working at it, but it’s such a useful word for breaking things down and making our calculations less intimidating for new staff that it’s hard to get away from!

    3. CathVWXYNot?

      During grad school, I took a presentation skills course that included being filmed giving a presentation and then watching it back with the class and receiving feedback. It was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life, but incredibly valuable – seeing yourself on film really emphasises all those verbal tics you don’t know you have (mine was to start every new slide with “Now,”).

      I used to have a colleague who would say “like, you know” (said very quickly, not drawn out with pauses) at least once per sentence, sometimes more often. She was ESL and I think it was just filler to give her more thinking time (although her English was excellent), but it was incredibly distracting. Every time I talked to her I thought back to that class I took in 1999…

  24. businesslady

    this actually dovetails with a weird idea I had yesterday for an experiment among AAM readers. I got an email from a coworker that–while not *wrong* in any technical sense–was just so different from how I’d approach the same communication that I found it kind of baffling. it wasn’t the first time I had that reaction to a work email, & I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience.

    which got me thinking–there are so many different ways to compose a given message, & naturally everyone thinks their way is right. so, Alison–what if you came up with a set of details & invited readers to submit their best “work email” method of conveying that information. you could even have submitters include an explanation of why that particular language seemed best ( I know I’d be interested to hear the rationales behind approaches that differ from my own). then you could post representative submissions & offer feedback (too terse, too friendly, too jokey, too verbose, too stilted, etc.).

    I’m sure it would make for a lively comments section, & as an editing nerd, I would be VERY curious to see what sort of responses you’d get!

      1. businesslady

        it wasn’t unique, just–weirdly terse. basically, in response to a large group email (where a lot of the cc:ed people didn’t know one another or even work together) asking “Who’s handling this process–is it you, Jane?” Jane wrote back, “[Other, non-cc:ed person] will be handling that process. Best, Jane.”

        I see stuff like that a lot, where–again, it’s not wrong, but my style would be more like, “Joe’s handling that process; I’ve copied him here. But if I can help facilitate things in any way, please let me know” (or whatever). & it’s intriguing to me that people can approach these things so differently.

        1. FD

          Wonder if that’s a regional thing? I would have been more apt to use the terse form, but I’ve heard southerners say that northern business communication comes off as brusque to them.

          1. Chinook

            I could definitely see this as a regional/cultural thing. I had the same reaction when I was working in Ottawa and had to get over myself and realize that being brief was polite.

            I remember training my replacement (from another friendly/chatty region) and seeing the look on her face when she hung up the phone after a brief call. I asked her if she felt she had been rude and she nodded her head as if she was trying to figure out what went wrong. I then pointed out to her that that was because you didn’t ask how they were or what the weather was like and just got to the point, said thanks and hung up and that that was perfectly all right in this place and that it took me a while to get used to it to.

        2. Ann O'Nemity

          I’m probably more like Jane. My emails are fairly succinct, especially if I’m just answering a question. And I might not even include the “best” salutation.

          Also, I also have a pet peeve about cc’ing new people into a email reply, especially in a lengthy exchange. It strikes me as presumptuous and it could potentially reveal sensitive information.

          1. Cat

            I think that depends on whether it is presumptuous and whether it does reveal sensitive information. If a client sends a query to my boss, who replies, CCs me, and says “Cat is our person who works on X issue,” that’s neither presumptuous nor revealing sensitive information since it’s all within the firm. If she added an external person, it might well be both.

  25. Anonymous

    I once had an computer reader (accessibility tools) “read” a document that was full of that kind of “stuff” and it really cut back on it for the “writer”.

    Unfortunately it also made me write more run-on sentences. Because they sounded fine to me!

  26. LizNYC

    I edit an analyst who, if he could, would use the phrase “in order to” in every single sentence. I’ve actually given him a quota for how many times he’s allowed to use the phrase (since “in order to,” in many cases, can be shortened to just “to” without losing meaning).

      1. CathVWXYNot?

        Liz, does he have any scientific training? I see that a LOT in academic writing, e.g. grant proposals and scientific manuscripts.

        (I see utilize for use a lot as well. One of my most common tasks is editing proposals down to fit word or page limits – a surprisingly easy job with some writers!)

  27. Anonymous

    I just love it when my coworkers who have what I charitably deem a loose understanding of the rules of capitalization and no idea of how to use ellipses tell me that I need to check the grammar of my work. It gives me warm fuzzies.

  28. ReyJay

    My manager’s favourite way to preface a sentence is, “To be fair…”

    I don’t even know what the point is.

  29. glennisw

    I have had two bosses who consistently use the “I” pronoun where they should be using the “me” pronoun. Usually when they compounded it with another person – as in “Please include Lisa and I when you respond.”

    It would drive me crazy and I think they look very unprofessional – but of course I was in no position to correct them, unless it was a written document we were producing.

    1. just laura

      Ughhhhh! Not knowing when to use “me” versus “I” gets on my nerves to the point that I want to correct everyone, everywhere.

      1. Windchime

        I see this one all the time, and it drives me nuts. I’m not sure how this habit got started, but there are a lot of people who seem to think this usage of “myself” is correct.

  30. glennisw

    I had a boss who liked to use the phrase “what it is we do” in the context of our company’s main mission. Instead of “what we do.” So he would talk about gaining support for “what it is we do” or finding partners who understand “what it is we do”, etc. Argh!

  31. Chris

    There is a manager at work that likes to use “You know” in all her emails and in verbal exchanges. “Well, the shipment of product A is running late, so you know, we should use product B to fill the gap”
    It makes me want to scream “No, I don’t know! The point here is for you to tell me so I do know!”

    Even worse is applying it to people “Jane is having a bad day, you know” I then feel compelled to wonder why I didn’t know Jane was having a bad day. Like I’m walking around clueless. ARGH

    1. Rana

      That’s odd. I grasp why people use “you know” when they are talking – it’s one of those things in the category of conversational fillers (like a somewhat longer version of “uh” or “um”) – but it’s really weird to write it out.

      (By the way, I doubt she actually expects you to know anything – it’s an empty phrase at best.)

  32. EM

    This entire post made me LOL.

    At one of my previous offices, a woman there constantly would say “irregardless.” It put my teeth on edge. Worse, the other ladies picked it up and started saying it too, I assume not realizing it is, what I like to call, “not a word.”

    1. Another English Major

      Me too! I was “literally” not “figuratively” laughing out loud while reading the comments. This has been one of my favorite AAM posts because I’m such a word nerd. . .

  33. Joey

    Eh, if she’s what I like to call a “newly promoted manager” this would be what I would describe as “not at the top of my priority list.” There will be plenty of other things to quote unquote worry about.

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      And then there is the “quote unquote” instead of “quote endquote”. Because the first makes me think you’re undoing the quoting, cancelling it out. :)

  34. Julia

    Does OP have a corporate style guide they could appeal to as an authority? Or, if not, maybe they could create one.

  35. Hannah

    Does anybody know the british sitcom “Miranda”? (if you don’t : please check it out, she’s hilarious) Her mother keeps saying “what I call” and it drives Miranda insane! (as in : “what I call a book”) :-D

  36. Lanya

    I had a former-coworker (who was the copywriter for our-company) who loved to add-hyphens unnecessarily because he found-it poetic.

    1. Gjest

      I once had a colleague who was writing an abstract that needed to be under 300 words. So they hyphenated nearly ever-other-word. I was so irritated I took all the hyphens out and the abstract would have been nearly 500 words without the hyphens. Insanity. I always wish the organizers would have rejected the abstract because of excessive hyphenation.

  37. Anonymous

    I know of some email issues:

    -Students who email professors in about 140 characters as if it is Twitter.
    -People who do not know that one period is necessary to end a sentence but instead use three!

    I don’t have to email my boss so I never get emails from him, but I would be curious to see how he writes emails. His verbal English sometimes goes right through me, and I am curious if he writes the way he speaks. I just wonder how many other people pick up on it.

  38. Fee

    Incorrect capitalization always reminds me of one my first (and still favourite) bosses. I was his PA for a while so would often be bringing letters etc. to him for signature that had been drafted and typed by other staff. I remember one particular letter included the phrase ” … in The New Year…” and a few other instances of Capitals Overkill. My boss read the letter and said “All a bit Tolkien, isn’t it?”

  39. Another Sara

    A former boss overuses the word “literally,” never in the correct context. Not only does he often use it to mean “figuratively,” but he also uses it like a filler word. For example,”I’m literally going to open the spreadsheet and look at the numbers.” As if that action was something unbelievable or unexpected. He always says it with this half-smirk and air of intense amusement, as if he’s got this great piece of information to share that we will never believe.

    The last straw was during a staff meeting when he said, “[Important Manger] LITERALLY has our back (emphasis his)” and I burst out “She LITERALLY has our back?” After that, his usage dropped significantly for a few weeks.

  40. Bobby Digital

    The capitalization talk up there reminds me of a really great Bob Dylan quote:

    “You know, every word has its little letter and its big letter, like the word know, you know the word know, okay…Know the word capital Know like each of us really Knows nothing…”

    Random overuse sucks, sure, but abnormal capitalization isn’t always random or worthless.

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