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As part of my job, I frequently exchange emails with a person (let's call him "Bob") who works for another company. I believe he's on the same level as me - not a manager - but because we work for different companies we're not at all in the same chain of command.

My problem is that "Bob" has terrible grammar. It's not a language barrier - we're both native English speakers, and our emails are all in English. It's just bad grammar. He frequently writes run-on sentences, leaves out all punctuation, or starts to say something and then starts over without erasing the original words. I don't want to quote anything he's actually written, but if I were to ask him how to log into StackExchange, I might get a response like this:

"Hi Amy there are 3 ways you can log in with Google will get you there or Facebook also you can with entering an email and password. Hope this helps! Bob"

I can usually decipher what he's trying to say, but it takes much longer than it would if he used proper grammar, and sometimes I honestly can't tell what he's saying. I don't want to nitpick, but this is bad enough to be a real problem.

I don't feel like it should be my responsibility to learn to understand his writing, but I've tried anyway. I haven't gotten anywhere. Each new email is as hard for me to understand as the last one. I'm afraid the only way this situation is going to improve is if he at least makes an effort to write more clearly, but I don't know how to ask him to. I'm not sure how, or even whether, I can politely bring it up to him directly. And since we don't share a boss, I don't think I could try to discreetly pass it up the chain of command to someone who would have the right to correct him.

So my main question is "What should I do in order to improve communication between us (that is, to either learn to read his emails as he writes them now, or encourage him to write them more clearly)?"

If I'm allowed to ask a secondary question, it would be "Am I out of line to expect him to write well in the first place?" I know it may not be REALISTIC to expect that, but here I'm specifically asking about ethics, not results.

I thought that good spelling and grammar were a basic part of workplace professionalism, and that even if I COULD understand Bob's emails, it would still be unprofessional of him to write them so badly. However, most of the advice I've found online suggests that if something Bob wrote had terrible grammar (not just an occasional mistake), but I could still understand it, then I'd be a bad person for caring and a bully if I actually said anything.

I acknowledge that if I could understand Bob's emails, then his grammar wouldn't actually have any impact on how good he is at his job. On the other hand, since I don't interact with customers, my clothes don't have any impact on how good I am at my job, and I'll still be expected to follow a dress code when we return to the office. Nobody would claim that it was OK for me to show up at the office in a bathing suit and that anyone who spoke up about it was a "clothes Nazi". Realism aside, is it morally wrong of me to hold Bob to the same standard I'm held to - to expect him to make the effort to look professional, even when it doesn't impact job performance?

Edit: I thought I had made it clear that this is not a language barrier and that Bob is a native English speaker. But I've seen several suggestions that I should look at questions related to communication with people whose English is not good, and that if those questions weren't helpful, I should edit this question to show how it is different.

Most of the answers to the linked questions involved using simple English to avoid confusing people who are still learning, helping them to learn English when possible, and being patient and remembering that English is their second language. Those suggestions won't help here, because English is Bob's first language and he has no trouble understanding it - only writing it.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    May 18 at 14:13
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    Is calling Bob not an option?
    – henning
    May 18 at 14:19
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    Isn't Bob using some form of voice recognition system? That could explain the ramblings. If so, ask him to send you voicemails rather than badly transcribed messages. Or, as several people suggested, use the phone. Some people prefer the written form. Others need a phone or face-to-face contact. Also, who is the customer? You or him?
    – jcaron
    May 18 at 17:05
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    @jcaron This comment was written with dictation on the iPhone, and it’s not all one run-on sentence or missing key words. Sure, I’m saying the punctuation that I want to be inserted, but that’s no different than having to type it. Either Bob needs to learn to use his dictation software correctly, or he needs to find some better software!
    – Tim
    May 18 at 17:38
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    I think a lot of people are overthinking this. Sure, there are plenty of people with dyslexia, or disabilities that make typing difficult, or who transitioned to an office role from one involving manual labour, or for whom English is not a first language. But in my experience, there's a hell of a lot of native English speakers, who have worked in an office environment all their lives, and have no disability that would affect their ability to write a coherent email, but yet their emails and so on are barely comprehensible. In my work as a web developer I often have to deal with emails like this May 19 at 13:31
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I have a client who sends me emails I often have trouble understanding. Although we're roughly the same age, we write very differently. Most of her questions don't have question marks and many of her sentences do. So when I get an email like

The XYZ report is showing 99 for May?

Or

I just got this email from ABC. Thoughts?

Or

Is this something we could cancel with the cancel button.

I take a deep breath. I do not reply telling her that I can't understand her, that her punctuation is bad, or that it is not my job to read long emails to understand what particular point in it applies to our mutual project. I ask what I need to know.

Is 99 wrong? What number were you expecting? How do you know it is wrong?

or

What is it specifically about that email that is concerning you?

or

Yes, I think you could cancel it (or no you couldn't as appropriate, the point is just treat it as the question everything except the '.' identifies it to be.)

For your (client? vendor? fellow vendor?) you can take a similar approach. If you don't understand whether Bob is saying A or B, reply and say

Are you telling me I need to reset it because you can't, or that you think the problem happened when you tried to reset it?

(Or whatever you're trying to extract from his emails.)

Occasionally I do have to tell my correspondent

I'm sorry, I can't figure out what you're asking me. Can you phrase it another way for me?

But I try to do that as little as I possibly can. I just get more information when I say "are you telling me A or B?" or "why are you telling me this fact, is that something that shouldn't happen?" or "is there something you are asking me to take care of for you?" or other relatively precise questions.

These responses are all about me. The reason I tell you not to say anything about Bob in your replies (you were unclear, you seem to have left out part of the sentence, once again I am asking you to please make sense) is that anything about Bob is open to rebuttal by Bob. Anything about you is, well, your business, and Bob can hardly claim that you actually do understand him perfectly.

I don't suggest that these kinds of replies will improve the quality of emails you get from Bob. I do claim from experience that they will lower your frustration and get you the answers you need quickly.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    May 19 at 19:22
  • That's a much better (grown up) approach than mine, Kate. A few years ago I was in a similar situation to Amy, and would just send back the original email with corrected grammar and spelling.
    – Justin
    May 19 at 19:55
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    I wonder if you'll just get back a bunch more poorly written email if you reply in this way.... hmm
    – james
    May 20 at 14:10
  • @james Of course; Bob is apparently not a great communicator in writing, which will always be a factor in their written communications. But it's still a route to iterative clarification and helps highlight items that the other party consistently does poorly (whether they notice and try to improve or not). As long as the other party's writing issues are not enough to lead to someone else taking over the communications, there isn't much alternative to making an effort to understand them.
    – Upper_Case
    May 20 at 17:11
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    This is exactly what I do. The beauty is that your question lets the other person know how you interpreted their message. By seeing the difference between the interpretation and the intent, Bob will get a better feel for how to avoid those problems in the future. Simply saying "I don't understand" doesn't contain enough information for Bob to make any meaningful changes.
    – bta
    May 20 at 19:44
65

Amy, I'm gonna take a stab at this. It's sounding as if Bob has transitioned into a position from maybe being a skilled laborer to being a guy who's responsible for a little paperwork and client communication. And though Bob technically uses words in the English language, you are wrong when you state that you and Bob speak the same language -- you do not.

Bob sends emails that look like text messages between 8th graders. This is a hacked-down version of your college-prep English, and Bob may not understand the difference whatsoever. The punctuation and run-on sentence thing shows us that writing is clearly not the most highly valued skill that he uses on the job, but he's doing something right or he wouldn't be working. You risk offending him and creating a heap-of-ugly with your management if you start correcting him or insisting that he improve his writing.

You could do a few things:

  1. Write back and clarify. "Bob, are you saying _________ ?" He can respond "yes" or "no".
  2. Call him on the phone.
  3. When you run out of patience and it begins to affect your work or turn-around, let your manager handle any escalations needed.

Not everyone can be a Rhodes scholar, but everyone's worthy of respect as fellow humans. Seems that you and Bob need each other to get a paycheck on either side, so take a deep breath when you have to interact with him, and keep that in mind.

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    There's some truth about not speaking the same language, even beyond the grades. Technically, two techies speaking to each others are more likely to use the same vocabulary/language, than a tech and a doctor.
    – Clockwork
    May 18 at 7:34
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    Sadly, my college educated children sometimes don't actually write comprehendible English. :( I agree 100% with forwarding the message to Amy's mgr and asking if (s)he can help interpret. At least this way the boss knows that there's a problem and can, possibly, take it up with Bob's boss. Also agree with asking the clarifying questions. Every. Single. Time. Maybe Bob will get frustrated enough with having to rewrite his emails that he'll take more time up front and make everyone's life easier.
    – FreeMan
    May 18 at 12:35
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    I agree with the answer but disagree with this statement, "but he's doing something right or he wouldn't be working." There's no way to know that. Plenty of people work in jobs where they don't know what they're doing. Some companies don't fire incompetence as much as others. May 18 at 17:48
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    I think the suggestion of calling on the phone is the best. Writing is clearly not his natural means for communication. Unless you have to use email, use the medium that works for you. I know I would always prefer email or other written communication, but some people I deal with with you need to phone them if you want to get an answer.
    – neil
    May 18 at 22:48
  • This is so true. Many of my colleagues did not do the Abitur-university route, but the Realschule-Berufsschule-Fachhochschule route (in the UK that's like coming up through technical college and poly); though they are perfect at the technical part of their jobs their written German is miserable (their English is also bad). And German is only my third language, but I can still construct grammatical sentences.
    – RedSonja
    May 19 at 11:26
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Bob seems friendly enough, so my first solution would be to simply talk to him and ask him to put a little more effort in without judging him. The exact wording depends on your specific relationship and how informal you think would be appropriate. I might say something like

Hey Bob. I really appreciate how quickly you get back to me when something comes up. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding those quick notes though--maybe you could type s-l-o-w-e-r and LOUDER? :) Seriously though, I know you're super busy but it would help me out a lot if you could write things out a little more explicitly.

I would avoid complaining about grammar; the problem isn't dangling participles, it's how quickly you can understand the email. He might take more care with his emails, or he might say "Sure" then completely ignore you. I've never had anyone who I was friendly enough with to ask a favor from flip out when I asked them respectfully, so this is what I try first.

If the "ask nicely" option doesn't work, my general solution for situations where I don't have the authority to change things is to make sure that I am not the only person bearing the burden. It's easy for someone to ignore how their behavior is impacting you; it's more difficult for them to ignore it if it is also impacting them. You need to share the impact of Bob's unclear communication with him so that he will be inconvenienced by it as well.

Only you know the most appropriate way to do this. What I might do is pick up the phone and call Bob every time I get an email I don't understand and ask him to explain it. If he likes to chat on the phone or he ruthlessly screens his calls, this might not work. If the phone call isn't going to work, playing twenty questions for every incomprehensible email (similar to what was suggested in Kate's awesome answer but slightly more annoying) might help shift the burden of Bob's communication failures partly back on to him.

If someone is making your life difficult because they aren't putting enough effort into something, often all you need to do is make it harder or more inconvenient for them to do that and they will stop. If the underlying problem isn't a lack of effort, making it harder usually escalates the situation, which is why it is important to try talking through the issue first. If Bob is sending you e-mails handsfree while he's driving because he wants to make sure he responds quickly, you can't fix his poor email writing without figuring out how he can email you when he is in front of a real keyboard instead. Ideally, you would have a better understanding of why Bob writes bad emails before trying to solve the issue.

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    Calling him might be the best option you have. I had a different communication issue with a colleague. When writing longer texts his sentences sometimes just ended in the middle, and when I asked him questions through mail he usually only answered the first question in my mail. After a while I switched to just calling him (or asking him to call me because he was often at a customer´s site), asking him my questions, wrote up my answers and sent them my write-up to acknowledge to have a paper trail.
    – idspispopd
    May 18 at 10:49
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    @idspispopd Absolutely! Changing from written to verbal communication can sidestep a number of obstacles and capturing verbal discussion in written form can give you the best of both worlds
    – ColleenV
    May 18 at 13:21
  • @idspispopd It sounds strange, and may be a nuisance for your colleagues, but try and have just one question per mail. If this means you reply to one mail with three, then that's how it is. Make sure the title conveys the content, so they know which is which for later reference.
    – RedSonja
    May 19 at 11:30
  • I think the "making it hard on them too" idea is bang-on. Only thing is that calling might not be the best. It might be easier for that other person, and it might lead to them thinking it's you who doesn't understand (you are the problem) instead of realizing it's their poorly written email. I was thinking that a simply reply stating something like "I don't understand what you've written here. Can you try that again?" - they'll get the idea soon enough, and might get tired of having to type their answers multiple times.
    – GWR
    May 20 at 16:04
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    @ColleenV - very good points. I've recently realized similar traits in myself, where I would spend way too much time "fighting" meaningless causes trying to change things to the way I thought they should be, when I should have just moved on. They way you described this in yourself was spot-on to what I see in myself. I guess there's a fine line between being passionate and being a stubborn pain in the butt.
    – GWR
    May 20 at 17:14
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I don't feel like it should be my responsibility to learn to understand his writing...

You are correct. Communicating clearly and effectively is something that's a basic function of every job, but so many people fail to accomplish it - and yet they somehow get hired anyway. This is something your manager needs to deal with.

... is it morally wrong of me to hold Bob to the same standard I'm held to - to expect him to make the effort to look professional, even when it doesn't impact job performance?

No, because it does affect job performance - yours - as you've already noted:

I can usually decipher what he's trying to say, but it takes much longer than it would if he used proper grammar, and sometimes I honestly can't tell what he's saying.

While you could make various suggestions to Bob as to how he could improve his comms, or setup a reply to his messages that basically says "please could you rephrase", or even take the nuclear route and refuse to respond to any message of his that you can't decipher - all of these are likely to cause friction and make you look like the bad guy. In my experience, most people who communicate poorly take great offence to having this pointed out.

What's most odd to me is that your manager, and Bob's, aren't CC'd in on your comms. The whole point of CC is for a manager to remain informed of their subordinates' interactions with other business people outside the company, so that when extraordinary situations arise - like the one with Bob - that manager already knows who Bob is and how they relate to your business. If CC'ing had been in place, and either your or Bob's manager (or possibly both) were halfway decent at their job, they would have noted the higher-than-usual volume of messages between your and Bob, investigated them, determined that Bob's appalling grammar was obviously a problem, and quite possibly already taken action together to get this resolved. This is what good managers do - remove subordinates' impediments, often without the subordinates knowing.

While CC'ing can be and is abused for ass-covering, and many organizations have de facto outlawed it for this reason, when used properly - and I'd argue that this would have been a textbook case - the audit trail it creates is invaluable in so many ways.

Since you don't have that existing audit trail, you're going to have to escalate the issue directly. Compile a list of Bob's most obscure emails and present them to your manager with an explanation that deciphering them is wasting your time and thus preventing you from doing your job correctly. Your manager should be able to take things up the chain and somewhere along the line, get in touch with Bob's manager to get this resolved.

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    Absolutely this! At a minimum, forward the message to your own manager asking for help interpreting the request. Now, Bob isn't only wasting your time, he's wasting your manager's time, and a decent manager won't want his time wasted & will set about fixing it.
    – FreeMan
    May 18 at 12:38
  • Love the phrase “nuclear route” :) May 19 at 7:33
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Have you considered that this person may have either dyslexia or dyspraxia or something else.

When I first started working as a software test engineer I use to see error messages and output text from one engineer which was wrong. I was told fairly quickly that the engineer (who was an excellent coder) had dyslexia. That taught me to be tolerant to his text output imperfections.

I currently work with someone who's spelling and grammar aren't great but again I'm tolerant of their errors. I get the gist of what they have to say. If not I go talk to them.

There are always occasions in life where a real conversation is better than an email.

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    Tolerance and the ability to fix issues in code are one (very important) thing, especially when the employee is within the same organization, but when the employee is in a different organization, that's totally different. It's like Microsoft Outlook's grammar checker consistently telling me I'm using it's and its incorrectly. No, I'm not, but a major corporation has a bug in their software that I can't fix (and people are probably learning - if they put in the effort - incorrectly, assuming that the software must be right).
    – FreeMan
    May 18 at 12:41
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    "Something else" can also include amphetamine abuse. My first reaction to reading the post was the "Bob" has been using too much speed over quite a long period. I have no answer for that scenario.
    – traktor
    May 18 at 14:12
  • This should really be considered. As someone with dyslexia, I can recognize myself in the description of the writing. I would also add that suggesting in a friendly way to bob to try to use tools like Grammarly, might improve the communication. May 19 at 2:38
  • Is the fact that your first sentence a question, but doesn't end in a question mark, made on purpose? May 19 at 7:34
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My mother-in-law is like Bob. In your question and most of the other answers is the implicit assumption that this is something under Bob's control. I don't think that's the case. It's like asking someone if they can try to be taller. I think this is a situation where you need to make a reasonable accommodation to improve communication.

The main thing I would do is move to verbal communication where possible. For most people this takes more time, but with Bob, it's going to save time. For written communication, ask clarifying questions, and try to make your questions something that can be answered with a word or two instead of a paragraph. If you need a paragraph answer, use voice/video.

Bob's manager is aware of his written communication difficulties, and has still seen his contributions as valuable. Try to see that point of view.

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    "Bob's manager is aware of his written communication difficulties" I wouldn't count on it. Bob may not email his manager very often/at all.
    – FreeMan
    May 18 at 16:50
2

People generally have some things that they care about, and other things that they don't care about. When they don't care about a thing, they refuse to make an effort to learn or do it. This can be perfectly reasonable. For example, Grandma may just not be that into using zoom to keep in touch with her grankids, so she won't put the time into learning how to use zoom. Instead she'll call on the phone or visit with them in person.

The point where this stops being OK is when Grandma gets a job working for a company that requires her to use zoom all the time. That's the point where she needs to put in the effort to learn it.

Most people care very little about writing well, and Bob is just an extreme example of this. It's time-consuming to write well. If he was a personal trainer or a barista, this wouldn't be a problem. But he has a job that does involve written communication, and his laziness is impacting you. There have been several answers suggesting that you should just work around the problem by asking Bob lots of follow-up questions, or by switching to voice or texting. No. This is allowing Bob to waste large amounts of your effort because he refuses to expend a small amount of effort himself.

It's true that Bob may simply have poor writing skills, but the sample you gave goes way beyond that. Any adult English speaker can read that example and see that it needs revision. Bob needs to make the effort to spend 30 seconds rereading and revising what he wrote before he hits send. That probably wouldn't make him into a great novelist, but it would improve his writing by some marginal amount, which is what you need.

So you should probably be approaching this the same way you would with anyone in the workplace who is doing a bad job and making your job harder. Start by dropping hints. If he doesn't take the hints, switch to clearly stating to him that it's a problem. If he refuses to change, you can try to get a manager involved, but of course that has a downside and may not work.

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  • How many job applications don't list "communication skills" as a criterion? Bob needs to treat his e-mails as what they are; professional correspondence. Lack of punctuation and correct grammar is making his e-mails unreadable, and that's not acceptable.
    – swbarnes2
    May 19 at 17:54
-1

In my opinion this isn't a grammar related issue at all. At least you couldn't show it in your example. I'd rather think this is a semantic problem, a problem of content and context.

You need to figure out what he is talking about, not how. We have many clients whose marketing personnel does something similar although written in a clear language (German in this case). But they often write in such a manner that I think they assume we are telepathists.

So what you need to try to figure out is the subject of the correspondence.

My suggestion is:
Either call him back on the phone or (if applicable) use a form of bug tracking software (like Jira or others). This way the communication is not a personal communication but a public one (inside the domain of your companies).

Another case could be that this is some form of misogynism. As I understand it from your account's name you're a female and Bob might be male. This could be some sort of gender discrimination. You might want to investigate this a little further. I can't really tell from your OP, but Bob might have email conversations with other people in your company. In that case you might want to compare those emails to yours.

-1

I've worked with a few Bobs in my life. And I was a Bob once, but I was 'healed' by my first boss in my first student job.

My boss had null tolerance for sloppy language and hasn't believed in mental disorders - he kept saying they are made-up excuses by people too lazy to work on themselves. And he really had a point.

He hadn't accepted a single mail from me with a sloppy language. I had to go to his office and explain everything that wasn't clear. And after a few times, he said, that he's teaching me communication skills, and lessons ought not to be free, so I'd have to bring a chocolate to the office for my coworkers after each lesson, and he'll announce it to everyone when I'm about to bring one. And it did work.

You're in no position to teach Bob a lesson, and such methods would likely not be acceptable in any more 'adult' workspace, but the point is, bobbiness can be healed. People are bobby because they either have no idea how bad they communicate or they don't care. You can make Bob care if you stop interpreting his words and ask for clarification every time you have no clue what did he write. And if his answer is still hard to understand, ask for clarification again. And if your boss press you, say, Bob has written you something that could be understood in 5 different ways, so you have to ask for clarification.

At some point, hopefully, Bob will get a clue that being less sloppy saves his time. In worst scenario, you spend the same time asking for clarifications as you know spend on interpreting.

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