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Does Proper Use of Language Matter in Insurance?

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Since it’s back to school time, we thought we’d give a nod to one of the most important parts of any education: the proper use of English to communicate effectively.  Maybe it’s just us, but it seems that more and more professionals seem to have cut those classes a bit too often.  Our question is:  Does proper use of language matter?

This came to our mind recently when we heard an interview with Kyle Wiens.  Wiens is founder of two companies which depend heavily on good, usable documentation – iFixit,  and Dozuki,

Weins recently published a post in the Harvard Business Review’s blog, the title of which gives his his hiring standards: I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.  In case anyone is confused, Wiens ‘ first paragraph clearly sets out his criteria:

“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.”

Everyone in his company has to take a grammar test as part of the interview process, “including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers.”  Programmers?  Yes.  According to Wiens, “programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code.”

We think this goes well beyond programmers.  We see casual use of language in business correspondence with knowledge workers, mangers, and executives.  We also think attention to detail in thought and writing is especially important in insurance.  We’ve noticed that a significant minority of the  email and other documents we receive is routinely painful to read, and, at times, ambiguous in content and meaning.

This seems very peculiar given the significance of words in the main physical product of insurance: policy documentation.  These documents are the entities that judges and other arbitrators use to determine the outcome of disputes between insureds and insurers.  And we all know how some of these decisions can impact the insurance business.

A classic case of the unintended consequences of a stray punctuation point is occurred in 2006 in a dispute between Rogers Communication and Bell Aliant.  A judge ruled that the placement of a comma indicated intent that was denied by Rogers.  The result was a judgement of $1million against Rogers.  In its coverage of the case, the New York Times noted that the moral of the story is: “Pay attention in grammar class.”

Are we just being cranky or do you see issues with the written language of insurance professionals?  If you do, what is the impact, and, most importantly, what could and should be done?

8 Comments

Darryl May

A judge ruled that the placement of a common indicated intent that was denied by Rogers.

I think you may need to change to “a comma”. Just an fyi.

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Insurance-Canada.ca BlogEditor

Thanks, Darryl … This highlights one more important point: spell check is not enough!

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M. Griffin

I guess spelling should be right next to punctuation as a must at school……….at 7:41 AM a “comma” could become “common”

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Insurance-Canada.ca BlogEditor

Agreed. However, this editor’s problem was not with spelling. It was a lack of discipline to do a final, thorough proofing.

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Jonathan Hunt

“In it’s coverage of the case…” – Sorry editor, Weins isn’t going to hire you because of another error. The possessive pronoun “its” has no apostrophe. “It’s” (with an apostrophe) is a contraction for “it is”.

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Insurance-Canada.ca BlogEditor

It is gratifying that there are so many thorough reviewers available.

The editor is crafting a resignation letter, and will ask for outside proof reading help before submitting. His only other problem is that he doesn’t know to whom to address the letter.

Sincere thanks to all.

– Ed.

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Ian Totman

“Does proper use of language matter?” Clearly it matters in legal documentation (Policy DEC pages, much correspondence). But how important is it in internal documentation/correspondence?

In my experience this needs to be combined with “Does proper time spent on thinking and proof-reading matter?” Many (most?) cases where there is a lack of clarity in internal communication seem to come about as a result of the writer not taking the time to organize their thoughts…to re-read and revise. They can express themselves verbally, but don’t take the time to lay out the document so that their points are clear and coherent.

So I agree with your point about communications that are “…painful to read, and, at times, ambiguous in content and meaning”. This is the bigger problem. We can work on the overuse of commas later!

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Insurance-Canada.ca BlogEditor

Thanks, Ian. I couldn’t agree more. I like use a guide I heard in the early days of internet email: “Before pushing the ‘send’ button, picture the email you are about to send as appearing on your company’s letterhead, with your boss on the cc list”.

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