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Watch Your Language–and Theirs

This week in a Better Business Writing class in Tacoma, Washington, an information systems manager was writing an announcement about certain servers being down for routine maintenance. Her message was going to go to several thousand people. In it, she used the phrase “server maintenance windows.” I wondered how windows were involved. Another manager who read the announcement was also confused about what windows had to do with computers (not Microsoft Windows, of course).

Do you know what she meant by “server maintenance windows”?

Talking with the manager, we learned that her windows were windows of time.

Should she keep using the word windows if two interested readers were instantly confused? No. Words such as times, downtimes, or periods would be clear to her readers. She should choose one of them instead.

In an Email Intelligence seminar in British Columbia this month, I noticed that participants used the phrase “caps lock” to refer to something being in ALL CAPS. I had never heard “caps lock” to describe all capital letters (even though that is how the “Caps Lock” key is labeled on my keyboard).

In that seminar, should I start using “caps lock” as they did, or should I continue to say “all caps,” which is familiar to me?

I started saying “caps lock” as soon as I recognized what they meant. As their instructor, I had the responsibility to speak their language.

As a writer and business communicator, watch your language. Be sure to use words your audience understands. Watch their language too–then adapt your own to match theirs.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Watch Your Language–and Theirs”

  • First, “maintence window” is a widely used term, while writers in a writing class may not be familiar with it, management, server administrators and end-users on maintainted systems are all familiar with the term, its been an industry standard for years, all industries have indusry specific terms.
    Utilizing correct nomenclature helps us to be specific in our speach.
    Of course, we must keep the intended audience in mind at all times, but to “dumb down” your email can be offensive to readers who are used to industry standard terms being used, not to mention calling into question the capability of the writer to upgrade their servers.
    Referring to the Caps Lock key as the Caps Lock key is the correct way if your intention is to allow your readers to think you are intelligent enough to work a keyboard.

  • The email was going to thousands of people, and the jargon “maintenance window” would confuse many of them. That is never a good idea.

    We were not referring to the Caps Lock key. We were referring to letters being capitalized.

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