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Watch How You Say What You Say Online

As the mother of a daughter in college, I worry about how she presents herself online. Does she use four-letter words, rant about a roommate's habits, or tweet about her own exploits, as many young people do? I worry that she may unthinkingly share a side of herself that she ought to keep private. (She keeps any such behavior private from me, but that's because I am her mother.)

If you are a parent of an adolescent or are a relative of a young person, you probably share my fears. For a variety of reasons–including their future employment chances–we do not want our children presenting themselves repulsively online.

I have a different fear for many people who post online, even on this site. They don't swear, attack, expose or complain. But–

They make themselves seem illiterate.

I am thinking of people who make blog comments like this: "thanx for the tips they really helped me"–with no punctuation or capitalization. Then they include their full name, sometimes even with a middle initial.

A company doing a web search might find their comments and judge them unemployable because of their poor writing. The individuals might lose a job opportunity simply because they did not take the time to write, "Thanks for the tips. They really helped me."

I know I would never hire an employee or even a contract employee who showed up that way online.

How do you feel about this issue? Would you, like me, judge people based on the correctness of their online comments? Or should I cast off my schoolmarm's persona and lighten up? I would love to read your opinions.

Syntax Training 

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

18 comments on “Watch How You Say What You Say Online”

  • There is a real casualness to online writing these days. I have always tried to write well, whether in an email or online; that’s my nature. I appreciate when I receive a well written email, even if it’s for a casual purpose.

    If I was hiring for a position where good writing was essential, then I would be concerned to see a poor writing sample, like the one you illustrated in your post.

    If I received a text from my contractor with the generally accepted truncated/abbreviated words, it wouldn’t bother me. He is a real craftsman. His work is excellent. Not everyone is concerned with good writing, some just want to communicate quickly. I often truncate words when I text. It’s accepted. It’s the modern form of quick communications. I don’t think people think less of you for writing that way when you text.

    So to answer ur question…it depends.

  • Ron, thank you for your wonderfully detailed comment. I certainly agree with you about contractors. A good one need not write complete sentences with capital letters!

    When I mentioned “contractors,” I should have said “contract employees.” I will change that now.

    I appreciate your stopping by.


  • Lynn, I have to agree with Ron. I would hate to think I’d be judged on my comments’ sentence structure. The typos alone would kill me. 🙂 Not all comment systems have edit review. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

    Comments are more of a reflection of how we speak. Few of us speak in complete sentences, but I admit, the type of post could make a difference.

    However, I totally agree regarding the content of those comments. My #1 (as opposed to number one) ;-)rule in my Comments policy is, “Be nice.” Disagree all you want, but be nice about it.

  • This is an interesting topic and something I often think about myself! I am 26 years old- so still in that generation of texting (I mean, “text messaging”) and very casual writing in online settings.
    In academic, business or other formal writing settings, I am a self-professed stickler for correct grammar and punctuation. But when I text or comment on Facebook, I sometimes even surprise myself with my lax attitude towards correct writing! I will often omit commas or neglect to capitalize proper nouns simply for the sake of expediency.
    Now, if I saw that someone could not differentiate between a formal and an informal setting, that would make me wonder about their writing skills and professionalism.

  • As someone who makes hiring decisions, I’ll share my perspective. When I search the internet for a candidate’s history, I am trying to understand their judgment skills as well as their communication skills.

    Regarding judgment, I do not try to hold others to the same standards I set for myself and family members. If I find something questionable, I try to find out when that posting occurred and go from there. If there are some indiscretions that are not pertinent to the job and do not cross some (admittedly undefined) line, then those can be overcome – the farther in the past, the better. The goal is to ensure our employees function well at work, while avoiding the exclusion of a good candidate based on a past mistake or even lifestyle choices with which I might not personally approve.

    Regarding writing skills, I want to know that a candidate is able to write correctly. We make it clear in our interview, as well as on-going performance assessments, that use of Standard English in written communications is a requirement. If I find someone who can’t tell the difference between “your” and “you’re” (or “its” and “it’s”), or that thinks an appostrophe is required to make a noun plural (my list is long), I probably will not give the benefit of the doubt. They need to come to us with a grasp of the fundamentals. However, abbreviations in text messages would not bother me if there is ample evidence of proper skills.

  • Hello, Ron, Cathy, Lisa Marie, and Randy. Thanks so much for elaborating on your points of view. Your opinions, which I value, have me thinking I need to loosen up. I will keep thinking about it.


  • Hi Lynn,

    I have to admit that I have sent some texts with abbreviated words and sentences with no punctuation; but only to very close friends.

    Receiving those type of messages has always bothered me, so I try not to do it myself.

    For permanent/online messages, I do not abbreviate at all. I think it does come across as someone who may be illiterate. There are many people out there that are genuinely this way and it may be very confusing if they are trying to improve themselves.

  • When using text messaging or certain other electronic communication, I must fight the urge to omit the common abbreviations and use properly formatted sentences. However, the medium, especially texting, is often to get the message out as concisely as possible without hindering understanding. Formal sentence structure takes too much time to produce and read in these mediums. Just as we would not expect such casual writing to be used in a college term paper, so we should not expect the language of a college term paper to be used in certain electronic communications.

  • Hi, Audrey Lynn. Thanks for sharing your view. I agree that some forms of writing must be “quick and dirty” because both we and our readers are moving fast.

    What worries me is the permanent collection of our messages that builds up online–the things others may read a year or many years from now. As a writing teacher, I have to keep my errors to a minimum, and I have gotten in the habit if expecting the same of others. Now I am rethinking that attitude.


  • Hi, Lynn. As I know in Ukraine, where I from, HR of many companies do not know how to write correctly in native (Russian, Ukraine) language. Sad but true. And they not inetersting how I commenet something. Max they can look what I write on the wall in Facebok or Vkontakte (russian clone on Facebook)

  • As both a college professor and an avid user of social media, I’m placing my vote somewhere in the middle.

    Texting is txtng. It’s its own peculiar medium with a history that predates keyboard phones. I think most folks accept the abbreviations there by now, even if we still avoid them, ourselves. U can 2.

    On the other hand, status updates and photos on social networking sites endure. Sometimes they gain a good deal of attention. As those status updates and photos multiply, they start to paint a picture of the person behind them.

    I think it’s important to take responsibility for, and control of, that image we present. For a college student, I would think that should include presenting oneself as an educated individual. And educated individuals tend to write in complete sentences, even when having fun. Well, most of the time, anyway.

  • Hello, Kelly. Thank you for your engaging comment covering both sides of the issue.

    I agree that a collection of updates and comments gradually paints a picture of a person–and that it’s important to manage that picture.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective.


  • Lynn,

    very intersting post. However, if you want to hire an individual with certain business writing skills, wouldn’t you be interested to see the sample of their business writing rather than looking at their FB, Twitter, comments to blogs, forums? If most of the people don’t use “proper” language in conversations with their friends, why would they use it writing on their FB wall? Does that really disqualify them? I wouldn’t go so far. There should be a fine line between professional environment where such language is desired, and private life, where it might even sound awkward. Personally, I wouldn’t bother checking someone’s tracks on the internet, I’d be more interested in real skills related to the position I’m hiring the person for.

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