Let me begin by stating that I like business people. Most of the ones I know are smart, hard-working, analytical and decisive. They show up on time and get things done. They are not nearly as moody, sensitive or cynical as creative types like me. And to watch a business person manipulate an Excel spreadsheet is to witness an artist at the easel: hiding and un-hiding columns, sorting sales figures and rearranging rows in the same amount of time it takes me to type in a single stock number. They are good with the data.
With that said, I believe that business people – and by “business people” I mean marketers, accountants, product managers, lawyers and anyone else who can explain to you what something like “EBITDA” stands for – pose the biggest threat to the English language since the nonsensical lyrics of Oasis. They just don’t do words well. Not that there’s anything sinister going on. It’s just that business people keep trying to “manage” language the same way they move things around on those digital spreadsheets, using certain words in ways they never were meant to be used.
Take the word, “impact,” for example. It is NOT a verb. It is incorrect to say something like, “We expect the one-time costs of AMCE Corp. buyout to impact net earnings for the third quarter.” Business people started using impact in this fashion many years ago, even though there is a perfectly decent verb – “affect” – that means exactly what they so badly wanted impact to mean.
Sadly, you don’t have to attend an earnings conference to hear liberal and incorrect usage of impact. Everyone makes it a verb nowadays: educators, government leaders, journalists, social workers, sports announcers… Everyone. And those ambitious business people, always trying to stay ahead of the culture, have now made an adjective out of impact. It’s “impactful.” If you haven’t heard that one, stick around. It’s coming to a television near you.
There are, of course, other examples of words that corporate types have taken hostage, or ones they have simply invented. Take “ideation.” Please. It sprung up a few years ago and is basically a fancy way of saying, “brainstorm,” or, put more plainly, “thinking.” But no middle manager worth his or her six-figure salary would ever say, “let’s schedule a half-day thinking session.” And “brainstorm” would sound almost as quaint. So instead they say, “let’s ideate!” And their business casual-attired colleagues around the conference room table smile and nod knowingly, secure in the sense that their boss is up on the latest business jargon.
The misuse of impact and the creation of ideation are clear impositions on the English language. And there are many others. But there is one taking root in Power Point presentations across the country that is far worse. I would almost dare say it may be the hydrogen bomb of business-ese (which is a word I just made up). I’m talking about the use of “ask” as a noun. As in, “will you be attending the Tuesday afternoon ask that we have scheduled with the Innovation Steering Committee?” Yes. The ask. Formerly know as, “a question.” I am not making this crap up.
It would all sound silly if these language trends didn’t have a way of seeping from the board rooms into the general population. Will people begin saying, “the ask” or “my ask” in regular conversation soon? It’s possible. And if we can’t use a word like that properly, what is the point in talking or communicating or having a common language at all?
The whole mess reminds me of an exchange I once had with my high school English teacher. We were on a trip for the National Forensics League (which is sort of like debate for theater geeks, only less cool). We had been sitting for hours in some school cafeteria, waiting our turn to perform, when I tossed a half-empty Coke at a trash barrel, missing the barrel entirely and splashing the English teacher, who was our luckless chaperone that weekend.
“My bad,” I said with a shrug as my forensics friends snickered.
“My bad? Is that what you just said?” he asked.
“That,” he said (then he paused for dramatic effect), “is the stupidest, most ignorant thing I have ever heard. I know cocker spaniels who have a better grasp of English than you.”
My teacher was a bit of a pompous tool, but he was right on this count. It’s not okay to use words incorrectly. Most of the time, it makes you sound stupid. And a high school junior who is about to walk into a mostly empty classroom to recite the Clarence Darrow part of Inherit the Wind should really know better.
So should all those professionals with their MBAs, Juris Doctorates and other fancy degrees. Please use proper English, business people. That is all I ask.